Another day, another story of bad audience behaviour - or is it bad behaviour by performers instead? Broadway performer Patti LuPone gave another show-stopping performance when she appeared in Las Vegas last Sunday night - but it was “not the good kind”, as the New York Times blog report headlined their story.
After her previous diva fit during the last week of the Broadway run of Gypsy, when someone dared to take a photograph of her in the middle of “Rose’s Turn” that I blogged about here back in January, she stopped mid-rendition of “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” in her show at the Orleans Hotel, when she caught sight of someone in the third row using an electronic gizmo, and berated them publicly: “What were you doing? I promise not to be mad at you. Just tell me, what were you doing — videoing? Taking photos? Texting? I really want to know.”
As the Las Vegas Sun reports, she got no answer.
“Who would be brave/fool enough to then sass back at the woman who so ferociously played such maneaters as Eva Peron, Norma Desmond, Mama Rose and Mrs.Lovett? Eyes blazing, LuPone stalked the stage and went on a bit further about the rudeness to herself and to the rest of the audience, threatening the offender that she’d have him or her tossed out if it happened again. The crowd applauded with loud approval, and the bond between performer and audience seemed even stronger as LuPone picked up the Evita number again from the beginning.”
In age of instant communication, however, word quickly spread about this latest incident - and indeed, if it hadn’t been for the likely risk that the journalist could have put himself at, it might have been instant: according to the Las Vegas Sun reporter Joe Brown, “Sitting near me in the capacity crowd was freelance journalist and blogger Steve Friess, who was itching to post about the eruption to his Twitter feed. ‘I want to text right now so bad it’s killing me! he whispered, laughing. Friess quickly jammed out a blog post and a tweet, apparently while waiting for the valet to retrieve his car.”
LuPone has duly replied already to the New York Times story on the incident, writing to the journalist in a response that has now been published: “I found the tone of your report very snide and feel compelled to write you to ask - what do expect me, or any performer for that matter, to do? Do we allow our rights to be violated (photography, filming and audio taping of performances is illegal) or tolerate rudeness by members of the audience who feel they have the right to sit in a dark theater, texting or checking their e-mail while the light from their screens distract both performers and the audience alike? Or, should I stand up for my rights as a performer as well as the audiences I perform for? And do you think I’m alone in this? Ask any performer on Broadway right now about their level of frustration with this issue. Ask the actor in Hair who recently grabbed a camera out of an audience member’s hand and threw it across the stage. Or ask the two Queens in Mary Stuart (Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer) how they react to it.”
LuPone, like Ken Stott and Richard Griffiths before her, is not taking this lying down. Nor are audiences - there are 600 comments posted so far below the blog containing her reply. As LuPone herself says, “It certainly touched a chord with people, almost all of whom sounded like audience members, who share in my frustration with what threatens to become standard behaviour if no one speaks out and takes action against it. This has been going on in my career for 30 years since I starred in Evita and, you’re surprised I stop shows now?”
By an interesting coincidence, just last week Benedict Nightingale did a big feature in The Times asking if theatregoers are becoming more disruptive, which cited some recent examples (including one he picked up from my blog here when Su Pollard chose to make herself part of the performance at the opening night of the Open Air Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing from the audience earlier this month), but also took a longer historical view.
As Benedict writes, “A breeze through history tells you how chaotic theatre performances have been and can be. I suspect that even the first night of Oedipus wasn’t so placid, since it was part of the Festival of Dionysus, and Dionysus meant drunkenness….” He goes on to point out that, “For decades after the Restoration theatres were places were you might pick up prostitutes, see fights with swords drawn, even join in the odd riot. Foreign visitors were regularly appalled by the pandemonium at London playhouses. One German was pelted with orange peel, ‘which robbed me of all curiosity’; another so doused with water ‘my hat was saturated’; others saw mugs and bottles rain down and, in 1755, ‘a hard piece of cheese greatly hurt a young lady in the pit’. Even Boswell and his friends went to Drury Lane ‘with oaken cudgels in our hands and shrill-sounding catcalls in our pockets’ and hissed and whistled a tragedy called Elvira to oblivion.”
So there’s nothing new to the phenomenon. Benedict duly sets out “15 Golden Rules of Theatrical Etiquette”, including one about and to critics - “If critics irk you by scratching notes on a pad, be forgiving. They’re only doing their jobs. And virtually all critics accept that lighted pens, once common, are now verboten. If you see a critic turn one on, whisper something tactfully germane, like ‘you blind sod, switch it off’.” (Only the other day, my friend Charlie Spencer, sat across the aisle from me at the Young Vic’s Been So Long, was using a small light attached to his keyring to consult the playtext programme, presumably in an effort to see how long we’d been there and how much longer we had to go - always a temptation when you’re given the script, I know.)
But not everyone agrees that audiences need to be called to attention for their behaviour, or even necessarily notices it. Responding to a recent blog in which I’d pointed out a person who was seated in front of me at the recent first night of Arcadia and was, as I put it, “visibly intruding into the seat occupied by Michael Coveney beside her - though she wasn’t his guest - so he had to keep repositioning himself to get away from her”, Michael duly wrote, “I simply don’t recall the apparently troublesome woman I sat next to at the first night of Arcadia. If she was an intrusive fidget she was obviously worrying me a good deal less than she was Mark who was sitting behind us. And if I was moving about a bit in my seat, it was more likely because I was trying to focus more closely on the play, which demands concentration, than on getting away from a woman I didn’t know and her (to me) imperceptible intrusions.”
This was definitely one of those cases, then, where to observe the fidgeting was more disruptive than to be beside it. But it’s definitely the case that we’re all affected differently, and according to Michael, “I tend to think people should behave how they damned well please in a theatre, anyway, though my patience was sorely tried by about two dozen well dined guests at Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens the other night marching disruptively into the theatre almost twenty minutes after the show was supposed to begin.”
Likewise Benedict Nightingale, in his opening paragraph to his piece on audience behaviour, points out what he thought was a hugely inappropriate response in the middle of the National’s Phedre: “An odd thing happened at the National Theatre last week. It was the opening night of Racine’s tragedy Phédre and Helen Mirren, as the title character, was giving a powerful performance. She spoke (and I quote) of terror, delirium, the agonies of craving, the horror of guilt, impossible pain, bottomless degradation, self-loathing, despair and, worst, the discovery that the stepson she incestuously adored was in love with another. And what was the impact on a section of the audience? It came out with what sounded like canned laughter from a dopey sitcom. I blinked. My wife looked at me in disbelief.”
Actually, another colleague of ours, Simon Edge of the Daily Express, was also seated near Benedict, and was surprised that Benedict was surprised. Without treating Racine completely reverentially, the response of uncomfortable laughter is a valid one. Just because it doesn’t accord with one’s own view of the play doesn’t make it wrong.
At least there seems to be general agreement that mobile phones in the theatre are inappropriate; just as plagiarism is in journalism. The other day I reported here about an actor’s mobile phone going off, onstage, during a post-performance reading at Orwell: A Celebration, and Matthew Bell’s The Independent on Sunday’s diary column last weekend repeated it almost verbatim, but unattributed.