NOISES OUT FRONT
Audience participation, we are told, was a regular if unwanted hazard of acting in Elizabethan theatre. Heckling was something the groundlings enjoyed, along with throwing rotten fruit at the actors.
Theatre manners have improved since then. We prefer our audiences to keep quiet unless we specifically invite them to join in. Pantomimes actively encourage them to cheer the goodies and boo the baddies and help (‘he’s behind you’) or hinder (‘he went that way’).
Children’s theatre sometimes invites positive participation with the characters asking the audience for advice or coordinating them to create a storm, say, or become characters themselves.
And, although stand-up comics are still advised to have some witty ripostes up their sleeves to hurl back at hecklers, on the whole we assume an unwritten contract with the audience, by which we perform and they remain passive.
Consequently, performers feel justifiably aggrieved if audiences talk, noisily rustle their sweet wrappers or cough loudly in the quiet bits. Most of us, I think, sympathised with Richard Griffiths when he stopped the play to castigate the owner of a mobile phone that rang and interrupted his – and everyone else’s – concentration.
But a recent incident during a performance of WICKED has sparked a debate that asks all sorts of questions about audience behaviour and human rights. A family, it is alleged, was asked to leave mid-performance, because their autistic son was making involuntary noises of enjoyment that might have been disturbing other audience members as well as the performers. The child’s father has complained publicly, and ATG, the theatre owners, have apologised, insisting that their policy is to allow access to all. A day conference is planned to explore the issues raised.
At first glance it seems quite straightforward. Nobody should be discriminated against. We would all agreed that disabled people should be able to come to the theatre, that wheelchair access is essential, and that no one should be excluded.
But if they make noise ……. Does this make a difference? If they interrupt the atmosphere, if they disturb the audience, if they distract the performers, is this acceptable?
In children’s theatre we have always coped accommodatingly with the general problem of noise, accepting it as a hazard of the job. Crying babies, complaining younger siblings (often too young for the performance), indulgent parents stuffing sweets down the throats of their offspring, and, indeed, involuntary noises by the disabled. The Children’s Theatre in Minneapolis pioneered a soundproofed room at the back of the Circle, to which crying or distraught children can be taken and still see the play. In Bath, the egg has a similar facility. But, even if every theatre had one, would it be patronising to ask the WICKED family to use it? I don’t know. And what about grown-up shows? Can this family be assured that never again will they be asked to leave the auditorium if their son reacts noisily? At a Shakespeare or a Chekhov? At an opera or ballet? Is there a general attitude to this, an unwritten consensus? Do all audience members and artistes subscribe to it? Is it possible to guarantee access? Part of me knows it should be. Part of me wonders if it really can be …
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