Do We Respect Them In The Morning?

December 6th, 2010 § 0 comments

Had I seen any one of the following items over the past week or so, I probably wouldn’t have thought anything of it. But, as I say, each of the following has caught my attention over the last 10 days:

  • A major institutional theatre featured on its blog of a series of overheard audience conversations which I shall refer to as “rather unenlightened” regarding the nature of theatre
  • A talented composer sent a tweet seeking to incite use of the hashtag “Dumb Audience Comments”
  • A theatre employee tweeted the title of their current production in the form most mangled by a patron
  • Theatre ushers endlessly shouted at patrons outside a theatre as to which lines to get into and to “keep it moving” in a manner that reminded me of airport security
  • A newspaper critic sardonically tweeted and later blogged a letter, almost inexplicably routed to them, from a theatre patron dismayed at the updating of Shakespeare

I don’t provide this litany in order to embarrass or criticize any single person or institution. Frankly, I think these are a) just the tip of the iceberg and b) entirely typical of the kind of conversations and interactions that go on within producing offices and non-profit institutions all the time.

I do not hold myself blameless, though I think after more than seven years in which I am more a member of the audience than I am a theatre staffer, I have moved beyond the mindset exemplified by my first paying theatre job. That was in a box office in which we were extremely polite to the patrons on the phone (in those pre-Internet days), but thought nothing of putting a call on hold to finish a hand of gin rummy (a card game, just in case I have used an archaic reference). But that was the first of many box offices I know of where, just out of sight of patrons, a pinned up list of mangled play titles was studiously maintained for the hilarity of the b.o. staff, and would on occasion be shared more broadly within the theatre’s administration.

But taken together, the minor incidents above indicate an inherent disregard for the audience. Even when it remains largely out of sight and earshot, an insider’s game for those in the know, I have grown concerned about the “us and them” quality of these ostensibly funny moments which occur, no question, all too often if you work inside a theatre.

Something people rarely stop to consider is how little human interaction a patron can have when attending the theatre, especially now that ticket buying has become predominantly an Internet based activity. Think about it: you can buy tickets, or even a subscription, via computer; enter a theatre where your ticket (or to my dismay, your 8.5 x 11 printout from your home computer) is scanned by someone whose conversation is usually limited to “please have your tickets out and ready for scanning”; a brief exchange with an usher, who is either an employee eager to keep traffic moving or a volunteer who is handing out programs in exchange for seeing the show for free; and perhaps a bartender at intermission when speed, not cordiality, is most prized.

So let me say first how vitally important it is that the front of house people feel a part of the theatre, and understand that they are – aside from the performance of the play, which is of course at a bit of a distance – the primary personal interaction the audience has while at the theatre. They are, quite literally, on the front lines of how patrons experience a show, and just as surely as a surly waiter can effect one’s perception of a finely cooked restaurant meal, a condescending usher can immediately color a patron’s perception of a play. Even calm, swift professionalism can have a distancing effect.

But I am not writing to indict those on the front lines, who probably encounter a wider range of human interaction than you might think possible. Rather, I am writing to address the sentiments that take place higher up the org chart, in which the foibles of and frustrations caused by the audience become part of the lingua franca of theatre operation. It is that attitude which either trickles down to those we charge with serving our audiences, or which can fail to arrest such behavior when it occurs.

In an era where there is constant talk about declining audiences, rising prices and the need to attract “the next generation of theatre patrons,” I think it undermines those efforts when the staff (or our critics) take the opportunities to make sport of the people WHO ARE ACTUALLY GOING TO THE THEATRE. Sorry for shouting, but considering how hard we must all work to inspire audiences to visit for the first time, let alone return again and again we cannot afford to foster any activity which diminishes respect for the theatre patron. And even if the sheet in the box office is never seen by the audience, it is dangerous to have such a document maintained and shared, be it by samizdat or intranet, because the next time a patron flubs a show’s title, the sales representative may quickly focus on retaining the malapropism, rather than taking care of the needs of someone who has bought, or wishes to buy, a ticket to that show, whatever the heck it’s called.

Let’s face it, if we work in theatre, our knowledge of the form, of the literature, of the practice of theatre is almost immediately head and shoulders above that of many patrons, even if one is a novice in their first professional job. Our audiences haven’t made theatre their life’s work, and in many cases it’s not even a deep passion, but merely part of a menu of entertainment options. They aren’t necessarily going to know how to pronounce Marivaux, distinguish Ivanov from Platonov, remember which Rapp brother writes plays or which one was in Rent, or appreciate that the tradition of placing classics in alternate time periods is hardly new (even Shakespeare refers to a clock in Julius Caesar, set in an era when no such device existed, but that’s actually irrelevant). They’re in our theatres because they want to be; they’re calling us because they’re curious; they’re discussing drama in our lobby not because they’re experts, but because they’re engaged; they’re sending tweets, e-mails and even letters because they care and have something they need to say – and need to have heard.

Every human being can be the source of good natured fun, but when it becomes pervasive, judgmental or sport for those who make their livings off of the enthusiasm of audiences, a line has been crossed, and we have institutionalized elitism in a way that will prove damaging, no matter how innocent any single comment, tweet or blog may seem.

Let me close with a story.

For many years, I would visit the Glimmerglass Opera each summer, to see the work of a friend who was a regular director there. I went solely out of friendship, because I am not a fan of opera; it does not speak to me personally, and certainly I don’t have the emotional connection that the aficionados feel deeply. Simply put, when I am at the opera, I feel dumb, left out, and ill-at-ease. Nonetheless, I would go out of duty and dedication (which are not, admittedly, the motivators one hopes for from their audience) to my friend. I counted on the story (which I did not know in most cases) and the staging (which is of course the most “theatrical,” and therefore familiar), to carry me through.

Each summer, a small informal dinner party/picnic was thrown by one of the opera’s patrons for my friend, and he would assemble the guest list, mostly the other directors and designers, and his friends who had made the trek for opening night. One evening, some 90 minutes before Tosca was to begin, the small group began reminiscing about other Tosca‘s they’d seen or worked on. I, the novice, could do nothing but listen, as I had never seen or heard the opera. The conversation began to focus on the climactic moment of Tosca and (spoiler alert!) the group began recounting the many hilarious incidents they remembered of less than effective Tosca death scenes. After much laughter, a calm descended, and I was compelled to ask the group, “Excuse me, but did any of you consider that some of us may have never seen Tosca, and that you just destroyed the ending for me?” The speed with which they virtually shouted “No” at me and fell about laughing at my ignorance was stunning. To them, Tosca’s death was a given, known to all, and I should have known it already.

So there I was, in my annual outing, hoping once again that I might enjoy a stage work outside my knowledge base, and I became a source of humor when I spoke honestly about it. If you want people to share your love of theatre, whether you’re a professional or an avid fan, just remember that as much fun as it is to talk to those already in the tent, our peers, our real need must be on inviting more people in, on their terms, not ours, and always with respect and signs of welcome.


This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.

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