The Demands of Theatre

I have to confess to a certain falling out of love with theatre in recent years. It might well actually more be a case of theatre falling out of love with me - or, as in any faltering relationship, a series of many complicated factors. And it might be a relationship that ultimately can be saved, or not. Watch this space. But certainly, I know that things like the Theatre Charter are a major cause of the kind of rage and hurt that leads theatre and me to scream and shout and sulk at each other.

Theatre Charter is an online campaign to improve audience behaviour. Its starting point is the accursed mobile phone ring, but it boils over into a shopping list of complaints: audiences daring to have unruly bladders, the unwrapping of sweets and consumption of other foodstuffs that the theatre has inconsiderately sold to its patrons, people laughing, shuffling, generally being sat too close to each other, that kind of thing. Basically, the paradox of those who would probably actually be much happier watching TV on their own accusing everybody else of behaving like they are watching TV on their own.

I once wrote a mischievous piece in this vein actually, a parody of an automated 'Please Turn Off Your Mobile Phone' announcement:

Sorry! The embed should be here, but Soundcloud has some issues these days…. will fix! Watch this space!

It was performed by Charlotte Asprey and played as the prologue to a Miniaturists show at the Arcola a few years back. A flavour, if you don't fancy listening:

Audience should be aware that should they leave the auditorium during tonight’s performance they will watched and judged by everybody else.

Tonight’s possible judgements may include that you are a new parent finally buckling with guilt and worry.

Or a bladder infection.

Audience should be aware that protesting that you are a brain surgeon will generally not be believed.

In the unlikely event of an audience member leaving a boring show through brazen willpower, please be aware that the remaining audience will be highly judgemental, but secretly jealous.

Audience are advised that the denouement of tonight’s performance is that one character is secretly a robot.

And if you leave early, you will never find out which one.

Unless somebody tells you afterwards.

Or getting increasingly bombastic:

Please be aware that should you leave the auditorium during tonight’s performance you will not able to be re-admitted.

You’ll have to piss yourself where you sit.

If you stink of piss though, you’ll be asked to leave. And you won’t be able to come back in.

Why did you come anyway? Why did you come here to ruin it for everybody else with your breathing, and your eating and your pissing and your talking? Why? Why can’t you just behave like everybody and sit quietly? Why can’t you just shut up? Don’t singalong to the music, don’t laugh too loudly at the jokes – why can’t you just shut and up and take it all in quietly? Just sit alone in the dark, alone in your seat, not touching anybody else, not looking at anybody else, just not interfering with anybody else?

[as the rant progresses, a cacophony of ringtones rises up…]

Just don’t do anything with your body. Don’t touch it, don’t use it, don’t bring any attention to it. Or anybody else’s. Don’t touch them. Don’t love them, don’t caress them, don’t fuck them, don’t kiss them.

This play may contain strong language. If you don’t like it you can just fuck off. Just fuck off now, it’s not for you. It contains nudity, and not just a few coy tits or the flash of an arse, full-on, full frontal, gay fucking nudity, cocks and cunts and arseholes and everything. Just like life. Just like life does. It contains gunshots, and violence and car crashes and abuse and anger and whippings and beatings and bombings and explosions. Big explosions. Big strobe lit explosions blowing apart arms and heads and feet and fingers. And not just darkskinned people but white people too. White adults and children and babies, dead babies, a rain of dead babies, a red monsoon downpour of dead babies.

Yeah, and so on.

I could labour this simple misanthropic body-hating point a lot further - but maybe there's something deeper going on here. Disruption is disruption, and yes, a phone going off at a moment of complete focus is annoying - and as disruptive to the actual phoneowner as much as everybody else, but there's more to the charter than this.

The Theatre Charter undersigned apparently promise to "be quiet and still after lights down," and to "never leave the performance unless for medical or emergency reasons." If you are bored, etiquette permits you to leave discreetly at the interval apparently.

Why is the complaint of these guardians of theatre behaviour not that the stupidly high price of their ticket inhibits their enjoyment? Why do they never propose that the show on stage should be so vitally, viscerally engaging that an audience member would be so desperate to stay that only the most dire medical emergency would drag them kicking and screaming from the auditorium? Voting with my feet is a right that I would have thought an expensive theatre ticket has bought you?

Now, you don't have to make a song and dance of leaving because as I said, disruption is disruption (no tapping along of your feet to the show tunes, by the way - a genuine complaint I once saw on a discussion board).

But what is so wrong with letting the theatre makers know that they've blown it? Yes, they might be working hard (and not at all phoning it in), yes a lot of people put a lot of effort into this. But they got it wrong, sorry. And I, humble theatre audience member, have actually also invested time and money and effort into being at this show, and I think they should know.

Something that also apparently irritates a commenter on the Theatre Charter page: 'premature applauding, where a meaningful silences should prevail for a little longer.' Sorry, who the hell is dictating how long that silence should last, then? I've seen many a director start the applause to break a silence that they know in their hearts is because they failed to craft a piece with a satisfying, and thus obvious end. Come to that, I've also had many an actor tell me about how they gleefully start a 'round' for themselves from the wings as they leave the stage.

I'm on a bombastic roll here, so I'm going to suggest that this is all indicative of a kind of Stockholm Syndrome of the modern theatre audience - too scared to boo, protest, demand more or do anything other than acquiesce, applaud politely. To do anything other than accept the re-treads and the Hollywood tie-ins and the shows that say nothing much about our lives. Or let a handful of mostly middle-aged, mostly middle-class, mostly middle-men decide upon the hierarchy of these shows and makers and players. It's a deeply asymmetric power relationship between the theatre makers and the audience. And I'm sick of it.

I think this all bothers me so much because I believe it completely erodes the power of the medium itself. The most affecting, powerful performances of anything I have ever seen simply demanded the attention of the audience and got it, to the point where those around could have been doing any damn thing they liked, I would not have noticed. The reverse is also true, the tens, possibly hundreds of shows I have sat through where I have been painfully aware of the auditorium.

Theatre that requires an audience to concentrate is probably blurry and unfocused. Theatre that requires silence is a show that could probably play as equally well in an empty auditorium as a full one, and probably deserves to. And theatre that requires me to behave properly to be allowed into its presence? Well, it can fuck off, to be honest. Sorry, theatre. I'd like to say: it's not you, I'm just going through some big life changes… but if you carry on in this direction - yeah, it's you.

August 2014