Live audiences are great, except when they’re not

Have you already booked your tickets? With the remaining Covid restrictions set to be lifted on Monday, many people are no doubt eager to return to crowded cinemas, theaters and concert halls, mask-less and without social distancing regulations.

Over the past two years, a lot of digital ink has been poured — some of it here — pontificating about how the pandemic has revealed to us the importance of live community events. Nothing beats the transcendent and shared experience of being part of a real audience in a real place and experiencing a play, concert or film together. Law?

Not so fast, as Jean-Paul Sartre would have said. He was the French philosopher who coined the phrase ‘hell is other people’, and an ignored but soon-to-be-tested hypothesis about the lockdown is that it made us forget how much our fellow human beings can be bunch of miserable, ignorant pigs when they are close and personal.

If you think I’m exaggerating, consider the events that unfolded last Saturday at the Lyric Theater in Belfast, during the Northern Ireland Opera’s sold-out production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods.

The Belfast Telegraph reports that spectators talked and moved around the auditorium several times during the first half of the show, which was enthusiastically commented on in this newspaper and elsewhere.

“As they left the stage, the actors complained to company bosses that the conduct of the audience was disrupting the performance,” writes the Telegraph. “Reception staff also reported being mistreated as they attempted to call on some members of the public to shut up and stop drinking in the auditorium.”

At intermission, the cast and orchestra members were told by director Cameron Menzies that the show was canceled and that they were to leave the theater through the back door.

Northern Ireland Opera declined to comment further when I contacted them about the incident, beyond confirming that it had taken place and was “looking forward to and focusing on the final six performances of Into the Woods this week”.

Prissy Bourgeois Rules

There is a school of thought that holds that contemporary expectations of how an audience should behave are rooted in a 19th-century set of bourgeois rules about remaining silent and still during a performance. Before that, spectators were shouting on the stage and one after another, eating, drinking, walking around and relieving themselves openly. Which is pretty much like the behavior of the Lyric folks last Saturday. Some theorists argue that we should shed these stuffy Victorian conventions in order to return to a less passive and more primal relationship between viewer and performer.

May be. And maybe we should bring back bear attacks and public executions while we’re at it. It seems unlikely that the audience of Into the Woods was some sort of radical collective dedicated to shattering society’s expectations of what live musical theater should be. One might more reasonably assume that many of them were over-stimulated by the pre-show refreshments and under-invested in Stephen Sondheim’s deconstruction of gender and power in the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales.

Different rules apply to different audiences in different contexts. Many theaters will not re-admit people if nature calls during the performance. Severe warnings about turning off phones and not speaking are commonplace in movie theaters (whether they’re observed is another matter). Popular music events are much more laissez-faire, which is to be expected. But a phenomenon common to nearly every genre in recent years has been the noticeable decline in standards of consideration for others. Is it because people are more used to home entertainment and don’t realize or care that they should act differently when they’re out? Has the lure of the always-on digital device reduced their awareness of where they are and how miserable they are for those around them? Are they more drunk or stoned than before? Whatever the reason, more and more of them would rather continue their boring shouted conversations after the lights are out than pay attention to what’s happening on stage.

Versions of this phenomenon can also be seen at sporting events. It should be noted that last Saturday’s audience at the Lyric was a corporate block booking. This can help explain why people would pay large sums of money to see a show or game, then continue to ignore it: they often spent nothing at all. With the arts and sports increasingly dependent on corporate partnerships and sponsorships, tickets end up being given out to people who are only there for the boozy pre-show function and Insta-friendly big night. They are the antithesis of an engaged audience, and sadly, we will only have to suffer. Hell remains the others.

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