how London’s theater crowds have forgotten how to behave

    (Composite Evening Standard)

(Composite Evening Standard)

I’d launched a Twitter call asking for stories of bad behavior among the theater audience, expecting a trickle of responses, if any. Instead there was a torrent of tales from actors, theater-goers and floor staff detailing verbal and physical abuse, drunkenness and bad manners. And this, from musical theater actor Jonathon Bentley: “A couple of years ago I was performing in Mamma Mia The Party and an audience member pulled his underwear down, between two tables and…” I’ll spare you the details but it’s safe to say that’s not something you’d expect in any public forum let alone the hallowed ends of theater land.

You might, snobbishly, view this as misbehavior, something that happens in participatory “entertainment” where alcohol flows and audience members may not know the “normal” rules of theatrical etiquette. But my Twitter request was prompted by a report in The Stage that the Ambassador Theater Group – the UK’s largest, which owns several London theaters – was adjusting its marketing for musicals to remove phrases like “the best party in town” or “dancing in the halls” in response to bad behavior from the audience.

Colin Marr, manager of the ATG-owned Edinburgh Playhouse, said an usher was punched after he asked an audience member to stop singing during a Jersey Boys performance. Again, this could be discounted as a one-time fee. Except it’s not. My timeline was filled with stories of people singing Hamilton, Hairspray, Moulin Rouge, and even Cabaret at the Kit-Kat Club.

Filming musicals, from Phantom to Come from Away, have been commonplace for years. When I caught Wicked for the first time since lockdown, two young women next to me filmed, texted, talked on their phones, and popped in and out throughout the show. Audience members and countless ushers told me they were threatened, beaten, given drinks or containers of ice cream, and in one instance were “grinded” during protests with people disrupting performances. The pressure on theaters to raise profits from bar receipts is a problem. A theater goer reports of a lone punter who turned up the volume after consuming two bottles of wine during a sideline musical. Last week, Bat Out of Hell had to be shut down thanks to a disruptive audience member and the police were called to a Bodyguard performance in Manchester where they forcibly removed spectators and the production had to close early .

And they’re not just musicals. Journalist Miriam Sallon witnessed a man join in onstage dialogue during The Taming of The Shrew at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. He was ushered out but he came back shouting “wine and cheese, that’s all you are!” at the public. One man repeatedly yelled “he’s bound to be overboard!” during Life of Pi at Wyndham’s (and was removed just before the character actually went overboard). Another clamored that Richard III at Alexandra Palace in 2019 was “not psychologically truthful”.

Misbehaving: London theaters are now the scene of abusive or anti-social behavior (Getty Images)

Misbehaving: London theaters are now the scene of abusive or anti-social behavior (Getty Images)

Most recently, an angry man interrupted a performance of As You Like It at the @sohoplace theater – which featured deaf actors including Strictly Rose star Ayling-Ellis and had closed captioning screens throughout the auditorium – shouting that ” discriminated against hearing people”. And to finally put an end to the notion that it’s all about class, we should mention that 12-year-old soprano Malakai M Bayoh was booed during a production of Alcina at the Royal Opera House in November.

It’s not just the abuse and boisterous attendance that breaks the social contract of a theater visit. Actor and songwriter Leo Elso reports seeing a man watching porn on his phone during intermission of We Will Rock You at the Dominion when he was working as an usher there.

Alexa Morden, an actress, writer and producer who also worked as an usher, says a couple were caught having sex in a room near the dress club during a long-running musical. Reception staff had to clean diarrhea off cubicle walls and, in a popular family show, remove a dirty pair of underwear from a toilet. Theater goers have reportedly brought food – including prawns, curries and a full picnic – to venues as diverse as the National, Soho and the Park.

There is a theory that things have been made worse by the pandemic, because the public has been desocialised by the lockdown. But these stories go back more than a decade, or in some cases even further. ‘I think Covid is just an easy excuse,’ says actress Lucy Eaton, who co-starred with David Tennant and Michael Sheen in the blockbuster TV film Staged, and who was on stage in the Park’s 90-seat auditorium Theater in 2014 when punters discounted the aforementioned picnic. “There were some people who acted scary before, just like there are now.”

Theater critic Michael Billington, who began his career at The Times in 1965 and reviewed for the Guardian from 1971 to 2019, thinks the growing prevalence of food and drink in auditoriums has caused people to ‘behave as they would in the cinema and eat, drink and chat regardless of whether it is a live performance”. He is right. I’m pretty sure that when I started writing about theater in 1989, fringe theaters in pubs were the only places that encouraged drinking during a show; and food was limited to the strange sweet paper crunching during West End matinees.

Billington also intriguingly suggests that rising ticket prices have encouraged more rowdy engagement, particularly at curtain calls. “If you paid more than £100 for a ticket you need to prove that your investment was worth it. The audience has now begun to perform, rather than just watching and listening – eventually booing and screaming. It also reminds me that we shouldn’t idealize the past. During a production of Jolson, the musical at the Victoria Palace in 1995, a couple famously began having sex in a box near the stage, and even the cast began coming over to observe them.

Rising ticket prices encouraged rowdier engagement, particularly at curtain calls

Dr Kirsty Sedgman of the University of Bristol, who specializes in audience research and cultural value, says the demographics of audiences have changed. “Since the turn of the millennium, we have seen a surge in broadening attendance and outreach initiatives designed to bring a more representative range of audiences into theater and to combat claims that the arts are an elitist space,” she says. . “And that’s a very good thing.”

This has been met, however, by increased use of the term “theatrical etiquette” and defensiveness among mainstream (older, white, more affluent) audiences and in the media. I’ve come to believe—and Sedgman qualifiedly agrees—that the ubiquity of cell phones and the way social media has accelerated and debased debate have broken the tacit contract that existed in the theater. We have become accustomed to recording every event and immediately expressing every thought aggressively.

And the pandemic has really changed everything. “Theatre is a canary in the coal mine,” she says. “It has always been a space where great social tensions first come to a head and then spill over into every aspect of social life.”

During the lockdown we have become increasingly accustomed to supervising each other’s behaviour, from social distancing to the use of the mask; to report bad behavior and respond aggressively if we were the ones called. We were also hungry for “cultural effervescence – for opportunities to be together in public and to engage and experience collective joy, social joy.” The aggression and blurring evident when people renegotiate what it’s like to go to a show or concert, Sedgman says, is mirrored in clashes in stores and on the streets. He writes in more detail about all of this in his new book, On Being Unreasonable.

During the lockdown we were hungry for opportunities to be together in public and to engage and experience collective joy

What to do, though? The theater establishment doesn’t say that. I reached out to countless groups, executives and producers for this story, and all but one refused to speak, even unofficially. The exception was Paul Taylor-Mills who said he welcomed the exuberant responses from the audience to his production of Heathers: The Musical at The Other Palace, but notes that “we don’t encourage them to drink and they are more likely to have Slush Puppies: The average age of our audience, I’d say, is about 15.”

Hannah Essex, co-CEO of the Society of London Theatre, gave me a statement: “It is worrying to hear reports of bad behavior happening in theaters across the country. It is important to remember that these incidents are still thankfully rare and the vast majority of the public are playing their part in creating a safe space for audiences, staff and artists alike to experience the joy the arts have to offer. Unfortunately, this is a cross-cutting issue. Many customer-facing industries are experiencing similar episodes of abuse, whether it’s retail, hospitality or entertainment.

“This is a social problem, with no easy solution. However, we are looking to develop a campaign that reminds moviegoers to be respectful of staff, performers and other members of the public, as well as providing further guidance to theaters on how to deal with bad behavior when it occurs.”

In other words, there will be no change in public behavior until society as a whole learns to calm down and behave better. And while abuse and violence are never acceptable, it’s worth remembering how recent the idea of ​​”theatrical etiquette” is. The public in Shakespeare’s time was certainly not a model of quiet and attentive decorum. The rivalry in the 1840s between two great Shakespearean actors, the Englishman William Charles Macready and the American Edwin Forrest, involved fans of the latter throwing “half a dead sheep” at the former during a stage appearance, and culminated in the riot of Astor Place which left 22 dead.

Beyond which all else is a drop in the ocean.

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