There was a lot of fuss recently when a production of The Bodyguard at Manchester was stopped and then cancelled because of audience behaviour. Whitney Houston’s songs are understandably popular, but some people seemed to feel the need to stand up and sing along loudly and often completely out of tune. In fact, so loudly that the audience had been struggling to hear the performers even though they had microphones. Given the price of tickets you can understand why most audience goers would not be happy. If someone suddenly decided to stand up immediately in front of you what can you do?
We went to see Six before Christmas and the night was ruined for Jenny by the girl sitting next to her. She joined in every song and gave the impression that she was part of the show. It was like, in her head, she was still at home singing to the hairbrush. Eventually Jenny asked her to stop, and she did, but she also seemed shocked as if she was surprised that her singing would offend anyone else.
Theatregoers know the etiquette – you sit and watch the show. But these days with the large number of jukebox musicals, it does mean that some audience members forget where they are or are even unaware of how they are meant to behave. Some years ago I went to see Shakespeare in Love in the West End and, I kid you not, a man behind me was snacking on a KFC bucket of chicken pieces. Now I have that that aversion to unwanted noise that makes me very annoyed when I get distracted. Someone eating crisps 10 rows behind me in the cinema would have me climbing the walls. In the interval I asked why he thought a live theatre was a suitable place to bring a meal. His look was one of shock – it seemed the thought had never occurred to him that it would be wrong or that it would affect other people.
Then I think of theatres in the past. In Shakespeare’s day those who paid to stand, the groundlings, often shouted out or threw things to show their displeasure but then in those days you could pay extra and literally sit on stage on a stool. So maybe different rules applied. Through the ages live theatre has always had this to-and-fro between the audience and the stage, and where would panto be without the element of audience participation? In Theatretrain shows when the curtain rises you often find the audiences talking loudly during the opening number but it’s only the mums and dads trying to point out where their kids are on the stage – and then they settle down.
I think the current problem comes from a confusion between show and concert behaviour. At a concert you expect a lot more noise around you and sometimes the people in front of you might stand and destroy your view. We put up with it. But in a theatre production you don’t expect your view to be killed off by what seems look-at-me behaviour. I sympathise with the poor theatre ushers who have to deal with those people who sometimes refuse to leave. Like it or loathe it, an audience is a community, and it can’t be led by people who haven’t spent years learning to perform and weeks of rehearsals getting it right. I say – grow up!