04 November 2011

Tolerance for Theatre Goers

Never him on the cross. Unwrap that candy! Josh Young as Judas Iscariot (foreground) and Paul Nolan as Jesus (background) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photography by David Hou. 

This blog is in reaction to a blog by BraeHockey I saw tweeted about this morning. It's another one of those "rules for attending theatre" blogs. BraeHockey must bare the brunt of my reaction to all those blogs, I'm afraid. I'm tired of them. It's as though people who go to the theatre don't see what a precarious art form it is and don't want anybody new to attend. 

Theatre should be for people of all walks of life and we should stop writing tax codes for them. I have never been accused of misbehaving in a theatre and I started going long before these "regulations" became rampant. I'm not talking about eighteenth century codes of dress, we all know what I mean. These laundry lists which attempt to enforce behaviour on others are partly a product of the internet and those millions of pulpits but not entirely. These "rules" started propping up on playbills and in the theatre section of newspapers before then. We need to think about who we could potentially be alienating here and not shoot ourselves in the foot. With our shoestring budgets and unglamorous daily contingencies, we forget there is an entire world out there that sees theatre as an elite. Some are narrow-minded twits who hate the arts but many are just people who are intimidated and waiting to be initiated. My philosophy is that we need them. We need to make them feel at ease with the idea of theatre being a part of their lives. The numerous posting of "rules-rules-rules" is counter-productive.

This is addressed to people who have a sake in the expansion of an ever-shrinking theatre audience and to those who are too intimidated to attend.

BraeHockey's blog seems only to refer to Stratford but there are all kinds of venues out there. The only time I felt out of place at a theatre was at Covent Garden. We'd just got off the plane, didn't want to miss that opera. We looked scruffy. Everybody there was dressed to the nines, something you don't see at the ENO (English National Opera) or any other venue I know of in London. In Canada, even the COC has a wide range audience-wise.

When in London, I go to the Globe with its mosh pit. It reminds one that theatre was never meant to be a formal occasion. Same with Ancient Greece. We call them plays because that is what they are. My point is that if one only attends Stratford one might get a semi-formal view of what theatre is. Not all theatres are like that. Some small venues in Toronto  and Montreal are positively hazardous to delicate clothing.

Stratford is a theatre for all. Poshos can wear their ball gowns. I wear jeans. The sites of the Stratford Festival Theatre are a place of great ease. The staff are super kind, no matter what you look like. Many on staff are townspeople, including students, who are trying to make ends meet. You will feel entirely comfortable there. I'm stating this because it might not feel this way from reading BraeHockey's blog. Let me address a few of the blog's points. 

3. Must you fidget? Here, Brae recounts a theatregoing experience about a woman digging around in her purse during the play. Brae says, the patron spent "the whole show" digging around in it. 

After having seen hundreds of plays, I have never seen anybody do this, but I must admit, I am guilty of digging through my handbag. Mea maxima culpa.

Yes, this year, I did a terrible thing at the theatre: I sneezed. Nope, I didn't have a cold, didn't have allergies. It was one of those uncontrollable human things. So, I dug around in my handbag, looking for a tissue. And then I actually had to blow my nose. The horror! Does it help if I say I felt very bad about it, very bad about something I had no control over?

Going to the theatre means being surrounded by other human beings. Stuff happens. We make noise. I find it's actually far more disruptive to my appreciation of a play if I work myself into a tizzy. Someone makes a bit of noise, I try harder to focus on the play. It really works and it's surely much better for my BP.

Note to potentially new theatre-goesr: I know you won't be digging through your handbag for the entire play and the chances of you sitting next to such a person are so infinitesimal, they are not worth considering.

4. Unwrap NOW! I've come around to the candy unwrapping for, I admit, very perverse reasons.

Yes, festivals like the Fringe and Summerworks attract young people, but, I have had to surrender and concede the point: Theatre is, largely, for me and little old people. Years ago, I used to see the "unwrap your candy before the show warning" on the programmes but that obviously wasn't good enough. Now at Stratford, a whimsical (or uncomfortable?) Des McAnuff speaks to us from the heavens and tells us to disrobe our confections before the show begins. Even funnier, at Jesus Christ Superstar, he tells us to unwrap away throughout the show since the music is going to drown out our activities anyway.

I saw every Stratford show this year and at every single non-Superstar show, I heard some candy unwrapping. The first few shows I saw, I was a bit annoyed, but then, it just became funny: "I'm eighty years-old and I'm gonna unwrap my godamn candy in the middle of the play if I damn well please. Was Des nest to me when we took that beach in Normandy? No? I didn't think so."

Not a bad rule but since theatres have decided to make such a huge deal of it, I now take pleasure in hearing octogenarians sticking it to the man.

5. Dress Decently

Apart from clothes which smell and could trouble the theatrical experience of everyone around you, I find this rule elitist and irrelevant. My ripped jeans have nothing to do with your theatre experience. Some of us don't spend money on clothes so we can afford to go to the theatre. Brae uses the term "have some respect" -- the straw that broke the camel's back and initiated this blog. ­­

Please, take it from me, I actually know several Stratford actors, and they couldn't care less what you are wearing. They have worked very hard for you to appreciate their performance no matter who you are, where you come from, no matter the contents of your wardrobe. I'm here to tell you that the large majority of people who work in theatre dress shabbily. They are open-minded, tolerant people. So are most of the patrons. 

Eight times out of ten, I wear jeans and a t-shirt because I usually attend matinees and on my own. At night, I tend to play dress up and go with a special one or friends. Theatre is a part of my life and I adapt it to my life. Sometimes, it's a grand occasion most times it isn't. I wish more people viewed theatre this way because then more people would go to the theatre.

Theatre lives from hand to mouth and survives thanks to the taxpayer. It cannot afford snobbish attitudes.

7. "Critique Elsewhere!"

This is baffling. Basically, according to Brae, you are not allowed to say you're not enjoying the show when others can overhear you. 

And I loved Kim Jong-Il. North Korea much?

Of course, you can bitch about the show! This is a democracy. During intermissions and after shows, I have overheard theatregoers make points I hadn't thought of and their contribution have sometimes enriched my enjoyment of the show. Sometimes, you don't enjoy a show that was designed to make you think and, for whatever reason, you didn't realise this until you heard a friend or overheard a stranger make a comment. There are layers of understanding to any show of substance, good or bad. You, sir, madam theatregoer, are by no means an omniscient genius and I encourage you all to listen. You might learn something.

Brae isn't even interested in positive vibes. Any comment is out of bounds until you are in your car. I disagree. A critical mind is one of the greatest asset you have in your life. Use it! If you are at a show with friends, you ARE absolutely within your rights to criticise the show with them. Don't anybody tell you otherwise. 

This year, a teenager who saw I was alone, struck up a conversation with me during the intermission of Titus. He was bursting and just had to tell someone what he thought of the show. This Stratford kid works a minimum-wage job and couldn't find anybody who could afford to go with him. He's loves everything having to do with history so he saved and saved to see Titus and Richard III. It was obvious he had to gather courage to go to the theatre alone but his love of history was too much to keep him away. He was over the moon and planned on seeing more Plays. Hey, theatre makers, we've got a new one! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!

Theatre is all about being open to new experiences. Good theatre opens us up in our lives as well. That is what happened that night. I have enjoyed much of what I've seen on stage this year at Stratford, but my moment with the teenager was very special. We don't all have art-minded people around us. I may very well have been the only person that young man could have spoken to. This helped make his theatre experience an even more positive one. He found someone who was on the same vibe with him. If it had been up to Brae's most odd theatre "rules", this experience would never have happened. I'm sure our collective enthusiasm was overheard.

9. Shoes/You're not at home!

Ok, this is going to sound like I'm really coming down on Brae for the sake of it, but the problem with al those "rules" is that things are rarely black and white. It just so happens I have had a counter experience of the "shoes" rule this year. We were at Homecoming. A girl sat with her father in the row ahead of me. She unwrapped a lollipop thirty minutes into the play. Then, she removed her shoes and put them up on the empty seat in front of her. She didn't make noise apart from that. She was ensconced in her father's arm leaning the back of her head on his collar bone. She was watching the play intently, I could see because she was at a diagonal to me.

Growing up in Montreal, this sort of sight would not be uncommon in theatres when the venue isn't packed. I understand that Ontario is more conservative. Even Ontario theatre is more conservative. I acknowledge how that sight, as heartwarming as it was to me, might not be perceived as acceptable to others. My take on this is that I would much rather see this girl enjoying her theatre experience than her being at home sat in front of the TV or comp. This is someone from the next generation who might very well be back at the theatre. She didn't bother anybody else. I didn't see any reason to intervene and nor did the theatre staff. 

Parting words

Outrage is a decision. We have complete control over what we are outraged at. I live in a world with seven billion people. Very few of them will ever go to the theatre and this makes me despair. Personally, I don't have rules for theatre. My motto is tolerance. I just hope it rubs off.

1 comment:

  1. I loved your rebuttal! I honestly didn't mean to make mine as nasty or elitest (my own description) as it sounded. This is a new medium for me, I admit I have to work on my composition, cover all angles. Looks like I can learn from you.

    As I stated mine came from bottled up annoyance (not outrage) & nothing more. I totally agree dwindling attendence is a problem.

    The reason I referenced Stratford more then anything is it is the only professional theatre I can afford to go to at the moment thanks to their Twitter deals & so on (these have also allowed me to introduce more people to theatre who have never been). I can't justify the prices charged by the Centre in the Square for a touring show & I live within walking distance - for example.

    As for the hand bag thing - I wasn't reffering to incidents such as the random sneeze. I should have been clear this was quite obviously a woman who had planned to do this all show.

    Once Twitter starts working on my BB again I am going to post a link to this.