Theaters may not be silent mausoleums, but audiences are spiraling out of control

Oh no, another theatrical revival: but this time it’s a repeat of bad behavior in the auditorium rather than an old classic brought to the stage. A “mini-riot” broke out at the Palace Theater in Manchester on Friday. Police were called and a woman was ushered out after she refused to stop singing during the closing number of the musical adaptation of The Bodyguard, even after production was halted twice.

I wrote recently about public conduct – and this is not just a problem for Manchester or musicals, but an industry-wide problem that touches on class, race, age and a general breakdown in public civility. It’s also about the inability of some venues to balance the profit motive with safeguarding. A survey of theater staff found that nearly half of those polled had considered quitting due to abuse or assault from the audience.

I personally think that a culture of instant gratification and aggressive self-expression has spread from online spaces into the theatrical world, but that’s a whole other column.

Staff and performers need to be safe and people who have paid big money for tickets should be able to enjoy an uninterrupted show. Similarly, we don’t want theaters to become silent mausoleums of culture.

The news tends to reflect the view of older and more affluent audiences that this is caused by the “wrong” kind of people who come to the shows: pissed off working class bachelorettes and young people who won’t stop talking or texting messages. There’s also often an uncomfortable racist dimension, an implication that reverent silence is more appropriate than the spirited engagement seen in productions like Sleepova at the Bush or For Black Boys at the Apollo.

As Dr Kirsty Sedgman of the University of Bristol, an expert on audience behaviour, told me, access and outreach programs in this century have, rightly, changed audience demographics somewhat. But the new hire isn’t uniquely disruptive. Recently there was Stylish Hecklers at the Royal Opera House’s Alcina and As You Like It at the new @sohoplace theater in the West End. Boris Johnson once sat behind me at the Old Vic, audibly muttering a soliloquy from King Lear .

So even if it hits profits, venues should stop allowing drinks (and food, FFS) in auditoriums. Feel-good musicals should allow for special nights where singing is encouraged.

A little light policing might help: A Little Life’s punters had stickers placed over their phone cameras, nipping in the bud any desire to snap pictures of its sporadically nude star James Norton. Well-trained ushers ensure that the Bridge Theatre’s semi-immersive Guys & Dolls ends each night with a party where no one seems to push their luck.

The audience of Shakespeare’s original Globe came and went, moaned and urinated where they stood. How the modern Globe handles this interaction between viewers and performers could be a wholesome and useful case study that helps us find a sensible way out of this mess.

My viral Barbie gag is a one-off

Not wanting to brag, but I went viral this weekend. No, really, I did. The marketing campaign for Greta Gerwig’s upcoming Barbie movie starring Margot Robbie includes an online tool where you can upload a selfie into a raw promotional image. For a laugh, I posted a photo of the Barbican Center’s brutalist architecture with the caption “This Barbie is…the Barbie-Ken Center” and tweeted it.

Four days later, as I write this, that silly gag had 374,271 views and more than 4,000 likes, a level of reach and exposure literally beyond my comprehension. Now I’m wracked with anxiety that I’ll never, ever be this popular or funny online again. Maybe that’s why I’m finally leaving Twitter. Not because of any noble objection to its ownership or its toxic effect on culture. I just have to quit while I’m ahead.

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