Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Yet Again With the Audience Behavior

Last night, we had a very nice house for Julius Caesar (probably to chastise me for complaining about the sizes of the houses earlier in the day in this very space). But with curtain time approaching, a group of eight still hadn't shown. Being fully aware that the National Folk festival was likely making parking difficult to find (despite the fact that we have a free attached deck), I made the call to hold the show a few minutes. An eight-person group isn't like four pairs, right? You wait for them because they've paid and they'll all show together.

Five minutes. Ten. At fifteen we got into places and gave the house manager leave to bring them in whenever they arrived. This is a little difficult in Second Presbyterian's chapel, because the audience and actors share the same doors for entrances and exits, so the arrival of eight spectators had to be timed for a moment when no actors needed the door.

A full ten minutes into the show, twenty-five after the advertised start time, the group arrived and was let in. Rick and I were alone onstage, my Cassius telling stories of Caesar's human weakness and godlike arrogance. Very slowly, one by one, a stream of high-school-aged young men came into the space, the first two actually beginning to cross the stage we were playing on to get to the other side of seating. One of their older chaperons grabbed them in time to keep them from walking within three feet of actors in the middle of a scene. One by one, each boy noisily found a seat, talking amongst themselves and switching chairs, sometimes two or three times, before settling down.

Perhaps "settling down" isn't the right term. Several of the boys talked incessantly as we performed, un-shushed by the older men with them. Ten or fifteen minutes after their arrival, one of the boys apparently decided he'd had enough. He stood, walked out, and sat sulkily in the hall, eventually followed by three or four companions. One of their chaperons came out to join them, and thankfully led them away from the hall where actors were making quick changes and entrances from. By intermission, a group of about ten had only four members in the theatre, the remaining half dozen sulking impatiently near the door to the building. By the beginning of act two, the entire group had left.

Let me quote Foster Solomon here:

WE. ARE. NOT. TELEVISION. Emphasis mine.

You can see me, I can see you. You can hear me, I can hear you. What I do on stage affects you, and what you do in the audience affects me. When your behavior disrupts the show, it disrupts the other members of the audience, and it sure as hell disrupts the performers. I didn't drop any lines or miss any cues, but I sure came close, and my focus was completely crocused for most of the first act.

So I am torn here. I am glad, especially after yesterday's post, for any audience to come to see me, and for any audience to come to see Shakespeare. I want everyone to come see this show, I really do. We pride ourselves in being a "populist" Shakespeare company, far more interested in bringing the Bard to the people than in exploring the lofty heights of its literary whatever (though of course we endeavor to do something of both). But these boys came in with looks on their faces as if seeing this show was equivalent to raking the yard. Sitting through Julius Caesar was a chore, they had decided, and they made darn sure their friends knew they thought it was stupid. And their chaperons apparently decided that sitting in the theatre with them was the end of their involvement (though I'm very thankful for the gentleman who kept an eye on the boys in the hall).

If I had been told ahead of time that this audience would arrive late, enter disruptively, talk through the show, exit disruptively, wander the halls, and then leave at intermission, would I have made the rest of the audience wait a quarter hour for the start of the show? Or, if I want to be truly honest with myself, would I have even wanted these kids to come to the show at all?

The remainder of the audience was very appreciative, and many stuck around afterward to chat with the cast. Among these was a group of teenage girls, younger than the boys, who were model audience members, giving and taking the energy of the show at every moment. I'm glad they didn't have their night as badly marred as I did.

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