The Art of the Business

A blog dedicated to artists who are serious about their business.

Square pegs in round holes November 30, 2009

I went to see a play last week, and had a very interesting experience, which I both wanted to share with you, and hear your opinion on.

I do publicity for the production company of Capilano University’s theatre department, Exit 22. They do four shows a year, two smaller, and two mainstage. Their most recent production was Romeo + Juliet, which just closed this past Saturday.

I thought the show was quite well done–I often think/talk/blog about how we are going to create a new generation of

Photo Credit: Damon Calderwood

theatre-goers, and this show fit that bill quite nicely. It bridged the original Shakespearean text with segments of the actors talking about the play. The actors were what they were–young–and how to address the problem of producing a play that requires older actors when you have none was one of the challenges that they met head-on. It was also sexier and more violent than a lot of Shakespeare I’ve seen. In other words, this was a play by young people, for young people.

The day I went to see it was a weekday matinee, that was mostly populated by high school students. It was a very interesting experience. The students wanted to know if they could take pictures, or video, and when they couldn’t, amused themselves by taking pictures of themselves and their friends at intermission. And they were a little noisy. This, personally, didn’t bother me, but what did concern me was that a critic was in the audience. At one point, he actually got up and shushed them. And his review was more about the noise than the play.

So here’s my question to you: are we trying to put square pegs into round holes? The tradition of theatre is that of a sacred space–and in that space, silence is demanded. For the sake of the performers, and for the sake of fellow audience members. While I do think that it’s important to show respect for others in the audience, I wonder if we are mistaking engagement for rudeness. Is it possible that the audience was engaged in the show, and that their chatting was actually them comparing notes and sharing information about what was going on?

We were watching this piece of theatre that made every effort to meet this audience where they were–their music, their dancing, their footwear. And yet, that audience wasn’t allowed to react to it in a way that they were used to.

Maybe we should have a section of the audience for teen-agers, away from the rest of the crowd. So they can text and twitter and chat without bothering anyone. Maybe we should open up the sacred space, and make it a bit more accessible.

The question I’m asking is this: if young people are the audience of our future, do we need to:

  • train them on proper “theatre etiquette”, and risk losing them because they’ll consider it to be too boring or stuffy?
  • create theatre that is so compelling that they are totally absorbed and engaged?
  • or allow them to do what they are going to do, and look at it as something positive, rather than negative?

I’m really interested to hear what you have to say.

To view some videos (a tool that we are using extensively with Exit 22) of Romeo + Juliet, visit their YouTube Channel.

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16 Responses to “Square pegs in round holes”

  1. feargy Says:

    Great work. I am a huge Shakespeare fan, and a producer of new theatre trying to encourage young people in. It is my opinion that we don’t need to ‘train’ anyone, people know how to behave when watching something they are engrossed in, cinema’s are largely silent. What we have to do is engross them. My take on this is to look at what ‘sells’ with my market (18-30s) and then put it on stage whilst maintaining the strongest selling point theatre has – life.

    There is nothing more exciting than following a character, laughing along with them, and being able to see them in 3D in front of you. I don’t mean James Cameron 3D either, I mean the works. Also, because I do mainly comedy, my shows contain lots of improvisation, and the audience know that. They are getting something no-one else can get, all the DVD extras in the world can’t reproduce the experience of watching something being create for the first, and maybe last, time in front of you.


  2. Romi Says:

    What an excellent question. At the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon, here is my two cents on the issue. A few weeks ago, I attended a local musical production where a theatre patron (in her 20’s, I’ll presume) proceeded to break into song along with the ensemble up on stage. Admittedly, I’m a bit of a theatre snob and I also have a past in performance so I cringe whenever noise is made in the audience (except for coughing, sneezing, or any human physical outburst that obviously cannot be suppressed – I’m not completely unreasonable). The lady in question was shushed by many around her, some patrons even went up to the ushers to complain. I paid my ticket (and these days they don’t come cheap) to be entertained by professional actors, not by a fellow audience member. Were we too harsh on her? I don’t believe so; I can understand this patron becoming so excited that she felt she had to break into song (not once, or two, but at least in five different occasions and for a few bars each time) but if everyone gave in to this urge, we’d have just a mass singalong and might as well send the paying actors home. Tap your toe in silence like everyone else, please.

    Young or not, I think there’s a certain decorum that comes with attending the theatre. Unless it’s participatory theatre where the actors fully engage with the audience, why should I (and other patrons) have to put up with whispering and commenting from the audience when it detracts from the events (not to mention the concentration of the actors) up on stage? What’s curious though is that during the last few years, audience behaviour seems to be shifting – in many productions I’ve attended lately, there is a lot more whispering and talking (not to mention the proverbially rude cell phone ringing) and many times, this chatter is not show-related. It seems that our collective attention span has suffered a substantial hit and that even in places of art, we’re unable to resist the urge to act as commentators as if we were sitting in the privacy of our own homes.

    If this young audience was actually discussing the show DURING the show, there’s no need for that not to be done after the curtain falls, in a classroom setting or on the bus back to the school/home. It’s fantastic that a show would instigate discussion, and I’m all for it, but there’s a time and place for everything.

    There’s a risk of stripping all the fun out of the cultural experience if young people associate theatre-going with rules and formal etiquette. But if their behaviour causes other people to sit through a play in discomfort, a gentle pre-show talking to from the teachers (or parents) on audience behaviour is not necessarily a bad idea. Ultimately, It’s a question of respect. Both for the actors up on stage, and your fellow patrons.

    Wow, I am really curmudgeon-like… 🙂

  3. Katharine Says:

    The “tradition” of reverent silence in theatres is a relatively new one anyway. I think it’s elitist crap, mostly, and would instead encourage actors and theatres to break free of expectation that an audience will be a silent breathing mass.

    This being Canada, I don’t think most audiences are going to become terribly disruptive anyway; the few shows I’ve been to (bouffon and the like) which encouraged audiences to get involved and throw bread rolls and such, were largely met by an embarrassed silence, and a palpable fear among individual audience members that the performers MIGHT in fact notice them and single them out.

  4. JackiYo Says:

    I think this opens up some interesting discussion. I’m going to have to agree with Romi (the curmudgeon). I find it very distracting when people talk among themselves, text, tweet, facebook, whatever, unwrap candy (argh!)…. I, too would prefer to hear the professional performer sing rather than the audience member near me. Having said all this, though, I think there is opportunity to have special performances. What about having a twitter-welcome show.. One where audience members are encouraged to tweet (not talk) during the show with a #hashtag included so others can view the tweets of those at the show.

    The wheels are turning… Interesting direction…

  5. Amanda G. Says:

    If they were actually talking about the play, then I’d say yes, let them chitter chatter quietly. However, having been in this situation in movie theatres several times I can say that the chances that they’re actually paying attention to what’s going on is slim to none.

    I think they (they being anyone who is interrupting the performance with noise and distractions) should be schooled in etiquette. I have a teenager in the house and I can say without any doubt that there is a definite lack of respect and a sense of entitlement that kids have now that’s very discouraging. I’m working very hard to make sure my 3 year old and 1 year old grow up to think of others and show respect for those around them. I have my fingers crossed!

  6. Andrea Says:

    I think we should always be seeking to create work that falls into your second category: so compelling that they are absorbed and engaged. Not just for the young audiences, but for everyone. I know this is the most challenging thing, but we tend far more often as a community to create work that (I think) falls into the category of boring, engaging-at-times, kind of interesting, kind of funny, or just good. When that’s what we’re doing, we certainly can’t get mad at others for disengaging.

    That said, I think that a certain level of etiquette is important. People (kids or adults) who haven’t frequented live theatre often actually don’t realize that the actors can hear almost everything they do- especially in the many smaller venues in Vancouver. That’s what concerns me more than disrupting your fellow patrons. Anyone who’s done some performing knows just how distracting it can be to be able to hear whispering or see the glow of a cell phone in the audience.

    Personally I think a sing-along musical would be kind of awesome, but then I think a whole new kind of theatre would be kind of awesome.

  7. Dean Buscher Says:

    I have seen about 20 modern versions of
    Romeo and Juliet over the years. Cross over pieces that use motifs from our era, to bring Shakespeare around to our time. As a director I believe we should have no fear of dismantling and rebuilding great works from the past. It is necessary. I also belief that much of Shakespeare’s work is subtle and rich and in all the modern versions of Romeo and Juliet I have seen some of that important subtly is lost. I think all good artists and artistic directors have some awareness of their audience so if you are going to make bold choices let your audience know, its coming through your marketing, before they get their tickets. If you have made your Romeo and Juliet like a musical you cannot expect people to not hoot and hollor, a bit (young people especially) I mean those are their friends up there! However I do believe you should not sell a classic if it no longer is one. That is the responsibility of the director. Of course the other option is to have the younger audience attend the dress rehearsal. This is also a good experience and nothing is lost.

  8. Romi Says:

    Andrea: I’m all for a sing-a-long! But only if the musical is promoted as such, and not at the whim of a lonely patron. 😉

    JackiYo: I love your idea of a twitter performance! Does anything like that exist already?

  9. Romi Says:

    (sorry, that should be ‘lone’ patron.)

  10. Good question being posed.

    To me, people chatting in a theatre should be treated as we treat many other things in society. If it doesn’t infringe on someone else’s enjoyment, fine. If it does, then not so fine.

    I suspect the teenagers were likely not talking, chatting etc about the play. Maybe we need to bring back “crying rooms” except we can call them “texting rooms” for all those with attention spans as long as babies to go to during a performance so they don’t disturb anyone. Just a thought!

    Having said that, I get so annoyed at how theatres are treated like some sacred holy place. I understand that for many types of performances taking flash photos during a performance is distracting to fellow audience members and should not happen but I think for other types of performances, it’s ok.

    I get amazed when I see ushers in theatres rushing to chastise people for simply taking a photo in a theatre BEFORE the show starts. Join the 21st Century. It’s just a theatre – let it live and be defined by those who attend and those who perform.

    Next thing you know, people will be twittering from the Vancouver Opera! Oh wait…


  11. Ryan Mooney Says:

    I’m enjoying the conversation and just had to weigh in with a couple of things. I’m all for bringing young people to the theatre, I think anything we can do to encourage them to be there is a bonus, do I think that that means breaking conventional theatre rules and making theatre a terrible experience for someone who has some to sit and watch the show? Absolutely not.

    A month or so ago my girlfriend and I went to see Paranormal Activity, there we a group of teenagers in front of us, two of whom were texting while the movie was on. We realised they were actually texting with their friends who were about 10 rows in front of them. My girlfriend told them to put their phones away as it was distracting. This was clearly infringing on our enjoyment of the movie. Now is our enjoyment more important than theirs? Nope. But there are “rules” in place because I guarantee you more people in that theatre would rather have everyone’s phones off than on.

    When I was in NYC last Christmas I noticed quite a few texters in the audience, people pay up to $125 for a ticket to a show. If your life is so important that you can’t go without checking your phone for an hour or an hour and a half, then maybe theatre’s not for you. Sure, there are exceptions to every rule, but we’re talking about a majority here, at least in my mind.

    I’m not an old fart, I’m 28 years old, but the fact is I find it obnoxious when people are checking their phones every 10 minutes.

  12. Ryan Mooney Says:

    One last thing, in regards to them talking, I agree with earlier posters. There is no way that they were talking about the show. I’ve been in lots of audiences where the entire audience regardless of age, is engrossed in a show. It’s silent, people are hanging on every word waiting to hear what happens next and if there are murmers, it’s during a scene change or at intermission. I think that a noisy theatre means patrons are far less engrossed than a silent one where you can hear a pin drop.

  13. Tim Says:

    Sorry Rebecca, they weren’t “engaged”. They were wrapped up in themselves, as usual. If we cater to them like their “helicopter parents” do, they’ll continue to believe that “it’s all about them”. We already read that these kids expect 100% raises after their first year of work, and that they ought to enjoy every moment at work! Since they telephone each other five times on the way to a “meet-up”, I don’t think it’s a good idea to encourage this “outside” behaviour (I’m alluding to a parent’s plea to a young child to “use your inside voice …”) “inside” the theatre.

  14. If you want to text, text. If you want to watch a play, do that. Don’t do both. Actual engagement with a live performance – whether you’re yelling at the actors or not requires presence. If you’re texting, you’re literally missing the point.

  15. adrian Says:

    One more vote for the curmudgeon in the comments board: show respect for the work, the actors and the audience, and pay attention. If you’re not entertained, suck it up – it’s not all about you. And pull your pants up. And get off my lawn.
    ps just in case your actors fell like addressing an noisy audience directly, have them read this first: Spacey’s is cool but Guinness’ story will make you cringe – A short history of stage outbursts:

  16. […] Square Pegs in Round Holes A recent post, the fact that it is number 8 is a testament to how interested folks were in my […]

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