Relaxed Audience

This morning I read an interesting article by Maddy Costa about ‘relaxed’ performances, aimed at people with disabilities and their carers. But I thought the article begged other questions. Or one other question in particular: should we shut up at every performance and patiently be entertained/sedated/just-about-breathing as performance unfolds?

I happen to be one of these people who can’t shut up during a film. Same applies to my theatre habits. I will alternately whisper things like “Oh God” or “Wow” to whoever’s unfortunate enough to come with and sit next to me to the theatre (although you’ll be surprised to learn that my unfortunate compadres are usually very patient about this. I’m very aware however of the fact that they are indeed captive (bada boom) to my terribly endearing comments, and are in fact probably most of the time internally toying with the possibility, by this point, of having my interval drink poisoned).

So my possibly misguided and utterly not-thought-through premise is that audiences should be allowed to say whatever the hell they want during performances, and I know the above article refers only to people who don’t really have any choice, i.e. shouting in a theatre because they have Tourettes for instance, but no matter: wouldn’t theatre be more alive if we were allowed to react more dramatically during performances?

Of course I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but really, it can be great when someone (intentionally or not) disrupts a show or event. We’ve all found ourselves secretly rooting for hecklers in stand up shows at one point or other (or at least I have), all the more so because we know they’re about to get demolished by the person on stage.

I once went to see Peter Brook at the Barbican, and about half-an-hour in, after one, particularly long and typically Brookian moment of slow ponderation, a man two rows ahead of me suddenly got up, looked at his (girlfriend? carer? handler?) and said: “THIS IS BOLLOCKS! LET’S GO.” (Had this candid observation and suggestion been written rather than belched, I can assure you he would have opted for block capitals. Don’t ask me how I know this). (My seat neighbour then whispered: “What was he expecting? Car chases down back-alleys?”).

Or here’s an incident of involuntary heckling: I was once performing in a show to a relatively small assembly of about 300 souls (small compared to Wembley — big compared to my dry cleaner’s) seated fairly near the stage, and as I was manhandling a large puppet part (actually, a wing. I won’t go into too many details here, except to say that ‘manhandling’ is the only appropriate word to describe my puppeteering skills), we all sensed some sort of commotion coming from the audience. An elderly woman had decided to pass out (perhaps I should mention this was during the Great Sweltering British Summer, and must have been a scorching 15°C at least in the auditorium. I joke, I joke.),  during a particularly breathtaking moment of theatre when the puppet, a large bird, flies around the stage, and this is my big moment, when I bring the wing around the stage in a majestic swoop of the arm, except that by this point some benevolent audience members are already around the poor woman calling for help.

At that point, Al, the oldest of us on stage, makes a martial halting gesture with his right arm — as if we are about to make our decisive move on the Somme but he’s all of a sudden decided against it — and says: “Alright gang — all off to stage right!” (or something like that).

Within 5 minutes the old lady in the audience was evacuated from the auditorium (I heard after the show that she was fine), order had been regained, and we resumed the show where we left off.

So here’s my point: as a performer, it was a surreal but somewhat rewarding experience. Why? Because there was a sense of jeopardy. Theatre became alive again.

As to what this says of my experience of the show in question, that’s, er, beside the point. But something happened. And who’s to say that theatre is exclusively what happens onstage?

Too, here’s the brilliant Stephen Colbert of the now defunct Colbert Report hijacking (even as he was invited) a hearing of the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship and Border Security in 2010:

(And here’s House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers asking him to leave the room:

I’ll admit this was probably just an excuse to post some Colbert, but it still goes some way in showing that theatre going wrong can be great theatre… sometimes.)

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