VIEWS: The audience problem…..

What has happened to audiences? Just look at these social media posts from actors.

From Mark Isherwood, JERSEY BOYS, London
From Sam Tutty, DEAR EVAN HANSEN, London

Just last week, a child wandered on to the stage at the Young Vic during the cast’s curtain calls for OKLAHOMA! and started distributing flowers to the cast members. A few saw it as cute, some saw it as the ultimate example of parental pressure. Others, myself included saw it as a dangerous situation, the latest example of disrespect shown to the acting profession by audiences that have lost their understanding of their place within the performance. Anti-social audience behaviour is the burning issue in theatre today.

Disruptive, drunken and other sorts of anti-social behaviour is certainly not a new problem, but it is definitely on the rise, according to the number of social media messages sent out by Beverley Knight at THE DRIFTERS’ GIRL admonishing drunk audience members (December 2021), Mark Isherwood at JERSEY BOYS London (March 2022), Producer Katy Lipson chastising an audience member for lighting a spliff halfway into GET UP STAND UP (the Bob Marley musical), Sam Tutty at DEAR EVAN HANSEN highlighting illegal behaviour (April 2022) and the brilliant Anna-Jane Casey praising the Front of House staff for their handling of drunks at her show CABARET (May 2022), to name just a few.

From Anna-Jane Casey, CABARET, London

So what is going on? There are two key problem areas- the structure of theatre operations, and the state of mind of the audiences they serve.

The system of theatre attendance encourages drinking to a deadline (short incoming, short interval), which encourages fast drinking and taking more alcohol into the auditorium for during the show. Theatres are at least part of the problem here, even if they rail at this truth – they make a lot of profit on drink, so they will be the last to discourage this. Audiences know the price of alcohol and see the markup- let’s be honest, it’s why a lot of people smuggle their own booze in.

So an excess of alcohol leads to anti-social behaviour and lack of consideration for other theatregoers, which leads me to another significant but as yet unexplored point – how many theatregoers are so put off by others behaviour that they decide to stop going, or reduce their trips to the theatre. What are the unseen costs to audience development?

While we wait for more data on these areas, let’s come back to the core issue- behaviour. Why are we seeing an escalation in inappropriate behaviour? I asked Neuroscience-based therapist Juan Carlos Gouveia to explain what’s going on. Here’s his take:

“We have now had over two years of Covid disruption to our regular routines, ones which many of us had been settled into for years, even decades. which has caused many different impacts. On the personal level, people have been experiencing a more challenging than usual range of feelings such as fear, loneliness, anxiety, uncertainty, self-doubt, depression, lack of control, to name just a few. They have also had fewer opportunities to share or discuss these feelings with others. In this societal trauma, many have been left to figure out how to cope with it entirely alone

As we have seen in what is being called The Great Resignation, people have also taken time to re-evaluate their lives, goals and dreams, and decided to make major changes in their life, which is great. But these were the changes they were in charge of, not the ones they had no control over, which are the ones we are focusing on here.

Societal guidance on our interactions shape our behaviours subtly, often imperceptibly. The sudden drop in societal interactions from mid- March 2020 brought with it a corresponding drop in societal guidance. All of a sudden, we had fewer reactions to assess ourselves off of. We all became less connected. And one of the many downsides of that lack of interconnectedness is that with no-one, or certainly vastly fewer people to feedback to us, we became acclimatised to doing what we wanted, irrespective of whether, or how, that impacted on others.

Put simply, this often means that when people started to go out again, to reintegrate with society once more, they had lost or forgotten the guidelines on what was acceptable behaviour. In one sense, we had forgotten how to behave.

A habit only takes 21 days to establish itself in our mind and then become the “new normal”. Covid has lasted over 21 months, so I think you can see that the road back from this pandemic is going to take years rather than months as people re-learn their way out of isolation.

One of the fundamental human needs is Belonging. This is expressed in many different ways, sometimes it’s about your environment and circumstances, where you feel comfortable, finding people with whom you have things in common. So it may be your family, friends, theatregoers, sports supporters, workplace friendships, and many more. We all need a sense of belonging to an extent.

Covid has severely disrupted this sense of belonging. We started working from home, seeing colleagues rarely if at all, and then by Zoom. People changed the way they dressed- if nobody saw your pajama bottoms they were ok, right? But this was just the start. We have had to navigate restrictions on who we could see/visit, theatres, galleries and sports being shut down, family and friends in hospital being unvisitable, and when loved ones died we were denied the usual methods of contact, comfort and rightful marking of their passing which we had known all our lives prior to this time. Trauma is not too strong a word for what so many have been through.

Our behaviour is moderated by the society within which we operate. Although we may not realise it, those around us help us to regulate our behaviours. And when the majority of that societal contact was lost, along with it was lost the imperceptible little checks and balances we performed upon our own behaviour, from taking cues from others about what was- and what was not – acceptable.

When we exist in our own echo chamber of thoughts, unrelieved and unregulated by open discussion and the views of friends, we are likely to become more extreme and inflexible in our thinking, which actually makes the road back all that harder to walk.

I think it’s fair to say that most people celebrated when theatres, cinemas and sports returned and reopened. But the return of theatre audiences was one which theatre owners – and especially theatre staff – looked on with mixed feelings. This long enforced absence, coupled with a real sense of anxiety and the underlying fact that things aren’t truly “back to normal”, has meant that behaviour is often out of sync or misjudged – or plain inappropriate, which is causing annoyance, upset, distress and hostility.

When disruption of the theatre event occurs now, the rest of the audience are, to a greater or lesser extent, triggered, most likely in proportion to their proximity to the disruption. The unexpected event reminds us of those things which are not in our control, and our anxiety response, which has already been elevated by Covid for a very long period of time, is heightened yet again. This may cause unexpected reactions, as we are more liable to respond via our emotional mind, (which is the larger part- 90% -of our mind) rather than our logical mind. Audience members may complain vocally or respond in ways which might not have been expected before. If there is some sign that a calming or dealing with the situation is happening, that will help to calm the reaction rippling out from the event. – and this is where our theatre teams are performing so well.

Now that many people are trying to resume their pre-Covid lives, they find themselves changed and challenged in ways that even they did not realise or understand. It will take our society considerable time to come to terms with how we have all changed. One thing is for certain – we will never be quite the same as we were before.”

It is clear from Juan Carlos Gouveia’s interesting and insightful analysis that action needs to be taken. Boundaries need to be re-drawn and enforced. The old stage door clamouring where artists are “expected” to be available to the public have been suspended due to Covid – and hopefully will never return. The false impression that audiences have bought anything except a ticket to the stage experience must be discouraged and disincentivised. Performers are people with right to live their private lives offstage unmolested.

In all this discussion, let us not forget those who have to deal with this, the theatre’s Front of House staff. Together with security support, they have done a fantastic job in trying to direct audiences by example, being pleasant, courteous and helpful wherever possible. They truly deserve an award from the theatre industry for the part they have played in positive recovery. But even they, thinly stretched as they are, cannot be expected to police hundreds of audience members each. It is incredibly difficult in practical terms.

Let’s also remember that the blurring of event types hasn’t helped too. This is something that producers have been complicit in over the years as they aimed to maximise their audiences. Expectations of audience behaviour at a pop concert and a pantomime are quite different to a traditional theatre show, and so those who go to see, say, a musical may not be quite clear how they are expected to behave. I suggest it is down to producers and theatres to advise- and enforce.

Let’s just return to that incident last week with a child walking on stage to hand roses to each of the OKLAHOMA! company. This is simply unacceptable. Sure, when unexpected things go wrong the actors handle it as best they can, but dammit they have enough going on without having to deal with the child of (most probably) overly-pushy parents. In a production props move, actors move, scenery moves. That is why the audience sits away from the action. Because it can be dangerous – people can get hurt. Actors cannot also be security guards and police the stage area, it is not right or fair to ask them to do so.

Let’s not forget that actors have had their own struggle in this time, where work was denied to them for long periods, and where even now many are struggling to find work again. This new anxiety of the stage not being a safe space to practice their art is an unacceptable burden to place upon them.

Nobody knows more than me the disruption that can be caused to a West End show by an invader from the audience. I myself was attacked live on stage by a very drunken audience member that my FOH team and I had to get off stage so that the star would continue with the show. But I’ll tell you that story another day. There are many other incidents I could share with you too.

Now I do appreciate that the people who engage in this type of disruptive behaviour are in a tiny minority- perhaps 5% who appear to have lost any sense of respect for themselves or others. There have always – and always will be- selfish people who don’t care whose night out they ruin with their stupidity.

Perhaps some audience members do not realise how damned hard theatre people work to make what they do on stage appear simple, natural and easy. Perhaps some people get carried away with the booze and the atmosphere, and imagine themselves to be a part of the show – but they are not. It’s the reason the audience are in the auditorium and the highly-trained dedicated professionals are on stage.

We need to get a tighter grip on audience behaviour and ban offenders for life, as well as prosecute them.

If you have further ideas, then I’d love to hear them. Meanwhile, I hope that your next trip to the theatre allows you to focus entirely on the show, and not the antics in the stalls.