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Badly behaved audiences, performers, critics and diarists…

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.

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As I've said before, I tend to get pretty annoyed by disruptive audience behaviour, but as far as I'm concerned it's a discourtesy to the rest of the audience, and performers are getting way too precious and thin-skinned when they imagine that, in a live performance context, they shouldn't be expected to cope with responses and activities of live people. LuPone is simply wrong when she speaks of the illegality of recording etc (it may be contrary to ticket/admission terms, but they ain't no law), and downright absurd when she starts banging on about rights - somewhere in the hereafter, the Founding Fathers of the U.S. are wetting themselves in laughter over that one. "This has been going on in my career for 30 years since I starred in Evita and, you’re surprised I stop shows now?" - Damn straight, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect you to have learned to live with it after so long.

Absolutely agree with Ian Shuttleworth. Ken Stott almost ruined the night for me and my son when he stopped the show because someone's phone was going off in 'A View From The Bridge'. He also obviously threw poor Hayley Attwell, who was made to come out of character in the middle of a scene and wait while he berated the audience member and refused to continue until they audibly told him the phone was switched off. It made a lot of people very uncomfortable, contributed to tension between performer and audience, and totally disrupted the play and the actors' performances. Now that's the biggest thing I can remember from the show, and not what could have been an incredibly performance from him. Of course the audience should take some responsibility, but these things do sometimes happen even to the most dedicated theatregoers, and it was a real shame he couldn't just have been professional and carried on.

I'm amazed at these comments. Having looked at the Youtube video of Patti Lupone in Gypsy I think she was 100% correct to act as she did. And it certainly IS illegal to make copies of professional performances without permission. Also the vast majority of posted comments to her reply to the New York Times article are right behind her. Re the Ken Stott incident, I wasn't there but, as far as I remember from the reports at the time, it wasn't just that the phone went off once (which is irritating but just about forgiveable) but two or three times. Same thing with the Richard Griffiths incident previously. Theatre is a live, COMMUNAL art form, and to sit chatting on the mobile or take photos is incredibly rude, disruptive and disrespectful to your fellow audience members, let alone the artists involved.

Frankly I'm surprised more actors don't cause a scene. I love going to the theatre but a small minority ruin it for me every time by being so arrogant and disrespectful.

In reply to Malcolm Ward - there were several Ken Stott 'incidents' during the run. I was there about a week after the main incident with a school party. Only one phone went off in the show a few rows behind me (and was silenced) but Ken Stott still insisted on making a scene and making the person whose phone it was shout out in front of the whole theatre that the phone was now turned off. He refused to carry on until they had done so. There was not much applause for him, actually, and it was all quite embarrassing. It left a not very nice atmosphere for the rest of the play, and like I said obviously really threw Hayley Attwell much more than the phone going off had done!

I was also at A View From The Bridge the night Ken Stott started ranting about the phone and to be honest Ithought he was completely over the top. He is a fantastic actor in a fantastic production, but that put me off the whole night. If he was a brain surgeon interupted at a critical point in surger,y fair enough, but a bit of persepective please, it's not the end of the world.

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I'm gobsmacked at some of the idiotic comments above. I am constantly amazed at audiences appalling behaviour so I for one absolutely support the occasional actor or performer who has the courage to indicate that this behaviour is NOT acceptable. When every theatre now makes announcements about switching off phones why do some arrogant fools believe it does not apply to them? Why do members of the public behave as if they are at home watching television with their experince incomplete without grazing, chatting, coughing unrestrainedly, crashing out to the toilets etc etc.
Regarding Ken Stott - I was not at the performance in question but I have every sympathy with Ken having had the performance I did attend near enough ruined by an abominably behaved school party sitting behind me. The act of submerging oneself in a role as demanding as Eddie Carbone requires a huge level of commitment and concentration. Is it really asking so much that the audience give a tiny little bit back by having the common courtesy to remain quiet and out of touch with the outside world for 2 hrs?

I am disgusted at the minority, the rude members of audiences who refuse to do as they are politely asked. My daughter and I went to see Michael McIntyre at the Birmingham NIA on the 8th of October. Camera flashes going off not only shows total disrespect for the performer, but for other members of the audience. I was so irritated by it, it affected my enjoyment of the second half of his show. There should be strong announcements at the beginning of every performance, ORDERING people to switch off and PUT AWAY their phones, not to take them out again. Allowing drinking in theatres doesn't help - a wolf-whistler was the target of a quip by Michael, but he just did it again, even louder. My daughter said "he's probably drunk". Not necessarily.. Stupid, ignorant people.

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