Anyone involved in theater can swap tales of rude or bone-headed audience behavior. Errant cell phones plague shows so often that it's more noteworthy when you don't hear one. An especially outrageous incident occurred when I saw Theatre in the Square's Mahalia. A telltale ring cut in on the "I Have a Dream" speech. Sure, it wasn't the real Martin Luther King speaking -- but come on, it was "I Have a Dream!"
What distinguishes boorishness in the performing arts from other public entertainments is that it intrudes on the performance. You can snore, slobber, chatter and fornicate to your heart's content in a movie theater, and neither Neo nor Meryl Streep are likely to notice. But stage actors are far more attuned to their spectators than most audiences realize.
Actor/director Barbara Cole says she likes to look her audiences in the face as much as possible and estimates that she can see 75 percent of the people in her audience, including the fidgeters, the snoozers and the cold-sufferers.
And some audiences are more obtrusive than that. Actor Larry Larson recalls an incident while performing in Wild Guys at Horizon Theatre. The characters were supposedly lost in the woods, when a woman walked through their "campsite" en route to the restroom. (Larson ad-libbed, "Must have been a bear. You know what they do in the woods.")
I believe most noisemakers "know" their actions are audible to actors and their fellow attendees, but the greater comforts of movies and television have spoiled them -- and just maybe they deserve the teeniest bit of slack.
Because it is physically harder to sit through plays than movies: You've got to be more still, more silent and spend more time in seats that tend to be harder and have less leg-room than elsewhere.
Besides, some responses you just can't contain. In Georgia Shakespeare Festival's Much Ado About Nothing, a family grave is marked by a lion emblem that looks exactly like the logo from The Lion King. When the stagehands wheeled it out, my guest whispered, "Simba ..." and I responded with a few bars of "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." But nobody overheard us. I swear.
Audiences sometimes react badly when they simply attend a play for which they're ill-suited, like when raunchy content shocks the elderly, or subtle domestic dramas bore teenagers. For folks who don't usually attend plays, or only see A Christmas Carol once a year, finding the right play can be a crapshoot. Theaters, armed with posters and press releases, can't nearly convey the experience of a show the way movie trailers can.
Suppose you were going to a cinema but only knew it was showing a "stylish heist movie." You could find yourself in a profane character study like Sexy Beast, an exercise in mood like The Good Thief or a high-octane action flick like The Italian Job. Figuring out the tone and intensity of a new play can be like that.
It's probably no coincidence that three local theaters with the most loyal audiences -- Dad's Garage, Shakespeare Tavern and Peachtree Playhouse -- are "well branded," and consistently provide a product that ticket-buyers can rely on. Since most artistic directors prefer diverse programming, individual shows become harder to define.
Actor's Express offers a terrific example of creative promotion with Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This summer, Hedwig (Mark Salyer) has made the entire city her stage, crooning and turning up everywhere from Outwrite Bookstore to Cowtippers to Creative Loafing's own office -- in that case, to serenade departing Happenings Editor Jerry Portwood at the weekly editorial meeting.
The "Hedwig sightings" combine smart marketing and '60s style guerrilla theater. Granted, you can carry the concept to dubious extremes: Send King Lear to retirement parties! Install Blanche DuBois at a MARTA station! But a clever public appearance or other "free samples" can give passersby a taste of a show that old-fashioned marketing cannot. Maybe, if you want the audience to come to you, you have to go to them first.
Off Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene.
Little harsh, in'it?
Oh that's right...I DID say enjoy yourself.
Go to hell Kombo!
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