by Nancy Salz , May, 2012.

An Audience Many Years Ago

An Audience Many Years Ago

They looked like a normal Broadway audience, these adults attending a matinee of Seminar. Then ten minutes into the play, when Alan Rickman, the star, made his entrance, they went berserk—screaming as if he were Professor Snape, his Harry Potter film character, instead of an actor on stage—and stopped the show in the middle of a tense scene.

A few weeks ago a fistfight broke out during the Brahms Second Symphony at a Chicago Symphony performance. In January Alan Gilbert, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic halted a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony when a member of the audience wouldn’t or couldn’t silence his cell phone. Gilbert’s rare action made the front page of the New York Times. In November 2011, an audience membershouted, “Terrible! Too slow!” during Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony at the London Philharmonic and barged out of the auditorium.

As I understand it, this is how performances are supposed to work: The performers act—or sing or dance or play musical instruments—and when they’re done, the audience applauds or shouts “bravo” if it’s earned. Even jumping to a standing ovation is acceptable although a bit meaningless since it happens so frequently.

Audience participation in the theatre isn’t a foreign concept; the fourth wall is sometimes breached on purpose. We were asked to applaud if we wanted Tinker Bell to live in Peter Pan or if we “believed” during the current Peter Pan prequel, Peter And The Starcatcher. We enthusiastically sang along to “Once In Love With Amy” when prompted in “Where’s Charley?” An actor in drag chatted up the audience waiting to gain entry into the theatre at the recent revival of La Cage Aux Folles. Audience members are invited onto the stage before Once begins. That said, uninvited involvement is extremely disruptive to everyone, performers and audience alike.

“You can’t take it personally,” says Alysia Reiner, who won an ensemble SAG award for Sideways and appears frequently on off-Broadway stages. “You can’t ignore it or it will stay with you. You breathe it in, then go back to the show.” Her husband, David Alan Basche, also a stage and film actor and currently appearing in TVLand’s The Exes, reported that at one stage performance a man answered his cell then paced the aisle talking. “I just stopped acting until the manager took him away. You get angry. It’s hard to get back into the performance. It takes tremendous concentration on stage.”

Fortunately, we haven’t yet reached the rowdiness of Shakespeare’s audiences, who threw dried figs and oyster shells when unhappy. However, there is a steep escalation of audience disorder. What is happening these days is far worse than crackling candy wrappers or talking during the performance. I blame two culprits: The Internet and television talk shows.

Whether it’s Facebook or the New York Times, on the Internet we’re constantly being asked to weigh in, like, rate and share. Web sites and corporations want us to interact assuming, probably correctly, that it will lead to loyalty. Doritos asked their consumers to write a television commercial. Slowly we’re becoming convinced that our two cents matter—everywhere.

But television is the worst culprit. It’s the only medium that actually trains an audience when to applaud, scream and whoop like a flying crane in heat. Talk shows such as The View have their own wranglers to cue their audiences just when and how long to shout. (Why else would a Rachel Ray audience cheer for cheddar cheese?) Remember the screaming on Oprah? In Saturday Night Live’s spot-on parody, Oprah’s fans screamed so enthusiastically their heads blew off; blood spurted forth from their necks like a geyser in Yellowstone. Is it any surprise that when many people “whooooo” or scream in the theatre, they think they’re behaving the way a live audience member should behave?

It seems we all want to join in. So I propose the following: Audiences should select the performing arts events they attend not by what they want to see but how they want to behave.

Want to scream, wave your arms and shout “I love you” at the performers? Then hang out at a Lady Gaga concert. Or join the audience at American Idol.

Want to sing along? Jersey Boys is the show for you.

Want to dance in the aisles? It happens often at live performances of Mama Mia.

Want to eat walnuts in your tattered robe? Maybe you should stick to television.

If you want to just sit back and be entertained, enlightened or swept away by a drama, a musical, opera or a classical music concert and applaud when appropriate, then head to a live performance. “I think theatre is one of few places you go to not be interrupted. It’s another world,” says actor Hannah Bos, who has appeared frequently at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “When you’re interrupting that, you’re interrupting what you pay a lot of money for. Chill out. Turn off your cell.”

Hold it a sec—turn on that cell! The San Francisco Symphony has just joined the Cincinnati Symphony and other arts organizations and has added “tweet seats” in its concert hall. Audience members can now tap their 140 character missives in time to Ravel’s Bolero. Do these orchestras think it will bring in a younger audience if people hear from a peer that a concert is good while it’s going on? One hopes these seats are behind a blackout curtain.

Jimmy Durante, the mid-twentieth century comedian, had it right when he famously quipped “everyone wants to get in on the act.”