“I got into a brawl one night in a saloon in Greenwich Village. Elia Kazan, a great director, saw me put out a couple of hecklers and figures there was some Big Daddy in me, just lyin’ dormant. And out it came. ”
First, to state what I hope would be obvious to anyone who bothers to read me, I believe that hate speech is vile. But in reading the accounts of what took place this past weekend at the Repertory East Playhouse in Santa Clarita, California, while I am angered by the the comments that ended up halting a performance midway through, and ultimately pleased that the speaker was shut down, I am struck by the failure of the staff of the theatre to address the situation properly as it unfolded.
The short version of the story is that during a performance of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, an audience member, reportedly drunk, repeatedly and loudly hurled anti-gay slurs at the actor playing Brick. At a certain point, which I’m guessing to be somewhere during the play’s second of three acts, John Lacy, the actor playing Big Daddy, came off the stage to confront the despicable patron. The situation became threateningly physical, and two patrons, Tim Sullivan and Rob Vinton, interceded to remove the ugly patron. The performance, remarkably, continued.
The upshot? Lacy was fired for physically engaging with a member of the audience and actor Anton Troy, who played Brick, quit in support. The production has been canceled as a result of the loss of two central cast members. For fuller accounts, I refer you to The Wrap, which appeared to be first with the story, and to the L.A. Weekly, which did an enlightening follow-up, including addressing details that had emerged in comments on the first post. I suspect we will see more.
For anyone involved in running a performing arts venue, the Repertory East scenario should become a training case study for any member of your staff who might potentially interact with the audience. It is a superb case study because, it seems, not a single person at the theatre that night did anything correctly. It was an awful situation, badly handled. The best that can come out of it now is that it becomes a teaching tool.
Let’s start with the patron. Free speech does not give anyone the freedom to shout fire in a crowded theatre, any more than it gives someone the right to announce sexist, racist or homophobic slurs in a theatre. Frankly, it doesn’t give them the right to interject anything they might care to say during a live or filmed performance. Even if the drunk at Repertory East had been bellowing in sympathy with Brick’s emotional trauma or vociferously condemning Big Daddy’s own failure to understand his son, the patron should have been warned once and then removed if the behavior persisted.
So where was the house staff during this incident? Was there not one usher, let alone an assistant house manager or house manager, in the auditorium itself to witness this at the very start? I even have to wonder why, at least according to the statement given by the theatre’s management, no one supervisory was aware this was happening. Did any patron exit and seek a staffer and, if so, why didn’t they do anything? If the shouting was loud enough for the actors to hear, why didn’t the stage manager or deck crew contact house management? Could no one hear this on house monitors? If house management felt frightened by the bellowing patron, why didn’t they call a senior staffer for backup, or for that matter, the police? Why didn’t the actors simply stop performing and walk off stage to seek redress?
I don’t know this theatre and I daresay the attention that’s flooding their way swamps any prior national attention they’ve received. But whether they’re professional or amateur, Equity or non-AEA, have just begun operating or have been around for years, if they undertook to bring in an audience for a performance, they should have had systems in place for common scenarios, including disruptions. If they did, the systems failed; if they didn’t, then the management failed. This should have never escalated to the point where an actor should have even had to contemplate coming off the stage to handle it personally, let alone have done so.
If you run a venue, circulate the stories from The Wrap and the L.A Weekly to your staff, and talk about them at your next staff meeting. If you’re an actor, know that when audience behavior goes beyond the pale, your best course of action is to pause and ask for help, not to become an enforcer. If you’re a patron and other attendees are getting out of hand, seek out the theatre’s staff, even if you have to miss a bit of the show.
Oh, and one final note, for those who run venues as producers. If you undertake to fire your actors for handling a situation that you or your staff should have nipped in the bud long before it became explosive, don’t issue mealymouthed statements like this, from Repertory East:
Due to unforseen circumstances, the run of the Tennessee Williams’ drama “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” at the Repertory East Playhouse in Newhall has been suspended and the show will not be completing its projected performance schedule. The show was originally scheduled to end June 14, however, an incident during the May 31 performance has resulted in cast members leaving the show with no time to adequately re-cast their parts and provide the quality theater experience patrons have come to expect from the REP.
During that evening’s performance, an unruly patron allegedly made discriminatory comments that distracted audience members and a confrontation occurred between a member of the cast and the disturbing party. The management of the REP regrets that this situation was not brought to their attention sooner and would like to assure future audiences that disruptive behavior, including disparaging remarks from the audience, incidents of bullying or hate speech, and racial, discriminatory or homophobic utterances, will not be tolerated and offending parties will be asked to leave the theater.
“We are committed to provide groundbreaking subject matter and professional performances to our audiences,” said Ovington Michael Owston, Executive Director of the REP. “We are extremely sorry that our patrons experienced this disruption and will do our best to make it up to those holding reservations for cancelled performances.”
Repertory East (presumably Ovington Michael Owston and Mikee Schwinn, the executive director and artistic director), you reference the specific, reprehensible language of the disruption in an effort to mask both your company’s inaction the night of the incident and your subsequent actions towards John Lacy, which are deeply questionable. You failed to eject the homophobic lout, but then eject the only person who sought to address his behavior. What transpired at Repertory East Playhouse is already known far beyond your theatre and your community, so why pretend you can control the story with obfuscation and gain sympathy with your declaration of support for essential decency? Your statement is mendacity indeed.
Thanks to Meg McSweeney for the Burl Ives anecdote