Friday, 11 March 2016

Theatre Thoughts: Etiquette

There have been an increasing number of reports over the past few years of actors, sometimes extremely high profile, who have reacted from the stage to hecklers in the audience.

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On the one hand I could argue that the actors themselves could be considered to be at fault - when on stage, you are playing a character; being that character and experiencing the character's world as they would. In that world, the audience does not exist, really, and therefore the heckler does not exist. I could argue that these prestigious actors ought to be able to block out any extraneous distractions and not lower themselves to the level of the heckler.

I come from a performance background in cabaret: I regularly received, and witnessed other performers receiving, heckles; sometimes good-natured, sometimes not. It's expected in this kind of performance; in any style of performance that breaks the fourth wall you are inviting the audience to respond. Sometimes this elevates the performance to another level (some of my favourite memories are those of expert hosts shutting down ill-thought-out heckles with perfection) and the whole audience comes 'on-side'. Sometimes it makes it awkward or tense, and sometimes it can destroy a performers confidence. But, as I said, unfortunately if you are directly addressing an audience, you may receive an answer from them.

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However, I absolutely despise rudeness, and in a traditional theatre context, that's what heckling is. It's plain rude. If I were attending the theatre and someone in the audience started to heckle, I honestly think the red mist would descend. If someone I was actually with at the theatre heckled, it'd be cause for immediate termination of the relationship, after I had finished shrivelling up and dying of mortification. (I very nearly broke up with a boyfriend once after his phone rang while we were at the theatre) 

Why this rise in heckling? Or talking in the audience, using mobile phones, or anything that isn't giving your full attention to the action in front of you? Action that you have presumably paid to see and gone out of your way to get to. Is it indicative of our modern society and our decreasing attention spans? The society that believes that every one of us is a special little snowflake and deserves to be the centre of focus as all times? Maybe some people just can't get through a couple of hours without making their opinion known. Oh lord, it makes me angry just typing this!

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Maybe there needs to be an educational intervention: when tickets are booked there should be a box to check, next to the Terms and Conditions; "Are you, or any other member of your group, a first-time theatre-goer?" If you tick 'yes' then you have to attend a mandatory, pre-show lecture on theatre etiquette before being allowed to watch the performance. Maybe Cinema Ninjas need to be rolled out across the board (although I think this would potentially be more distracting?) I don't know.

In an age of relaxed societal strictures, I feel as though theatre is suffering; both the audience and the performers. If you want to chat, wait until the interval or the end, and if you want to heckle, don't. Just don't. Save any criticism for a strongly-worded tweet. Just wait until the end of the show for that as well, please.

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