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We’ve all had the occasional loud singer next to us at a gig but what about someone singing so loudly the show actually has to be brought to a close?
Melody Thornton, formerly of the Pussycat Dolls, was drowned out by over-exuberant audience members while she was singing Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You in a performance of The Bodyguard musical in Britain last week. So vocal and persistent were the two women involved that police were called to remove them from the theatre and the show ended 10 minutes early.
Melody Thornton performs on stage.Credit: Kate Green/Getty Images
Such extreme behaviour doesn’t seem to have made its way to Australia yet but as we return to theatres post lockdowns, has audience behaviour changed?
Actor Tony Briggs says there’s a mutual understanding and a mutual respect between an audience and an actor on stage. “It’s a suspension of disbelief that you have to go in with. You want to be taken away, you go into the theatre to escape. Sometimes people escape with one drink too many. They bring it all into the theatre. I’d like to say that is an anomaly.”
Audience reaction and subsequent behaviour depends on two things, Briggs says: the moment and the nature of the show. When performances resonate, audiences can be transported. “I’ve had people commentating while [I’m] doing a really serious scene, someone has lived that [and said out loud] ‘I remember when that happened’. They’re so into it they forget they are not watching television, which is a compliment – but it’s annoying as well. That’s all part of theatre.”
Actor/director/writer Tony Briggs.Credit: Joe Armao
But the 55-year-old has not witnessed any extreme audience behaviour in his stage career, most recently in Nakkiah Lui’s brilliant Black Is The New White and Storm Boy. He also wrote the play The Sapphires and co-wrote the screenplay for the award-winning film adaptation.
Jesse Cain, business development manager at Marriner Theatres – including the Princess, Regent and Comedy Theatres and The Forum – agrees: audiences behave differently depending on the type of show.
Musicals such as Moulin Rouge and & Juliet, for example, are very different propositions to Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera. “There always has to be a bit of context to the way that audiences behave. You don’t want them in straitjackets – or distracting other patrons, impeding other patrons’ enjoyment of the show,” he says. “During the curtain calls there’s certainly an encouragement to get up and dance, and with shows like SIX The Musical, people are encouraged to film the finale and share it around on social media.”
“I think people are generally pretty respectful of the shared, communal experience of seeing a theatre show – but if it starts impacting on the drama and the narrative of the show, that’s when ushers will step in and suggest that maybe they could enjoy the show in a slightly different way and not feel the need to sing along or be too disturbing of other patrons.”
Mobile phones are ongoing culprits. In an intense, crucial scene in Suzie Miller’s Prima Facie recently, someone’s phone rang and rang, according to a theatregoer. It’s frustrating for everyone involved when that happens and breaks the spell integral to the theatre experience.
Cain says phones are another level to “someone bopping along in their seat”. “Phones are distracting for patrons, they’re distracting for the performers as they can see the audiences faces lit up and so when our ushers notice that, they are on radio so they can try to identify patrons … and then there are copyright issues as well, we can ask them to delete any photos or videos they have taken.”
Some people are sheepish because they know they’ve done the wrong thing, he says, while others are less amenable.
The past decade has seen reports of extreme behaviour including patrons defecating several times in theatres showing Some Like it Hot in Broadway – one incident discovered in the aisle near where Hillary and Chelsea Clinton were sitting – and even having sex during Thriller Live! The Michael Jackson Musical on the West End. “I cannot speak to any reference I can think of where that kind of extreme behaviour has happened in Australia,” Cain says. “There are all types of very human aspects of running a theatre but certainly nothing of that kind of wilful, deliberate, malicious activity at the theatre, certainly not at any venue I’ve ever worked at.”
Claudia Karvan.Credit: James Elsby
Claudia Karvan told this masthead recently that audience behaviour was fascinating during The Goat, or Who is Sylvia. It was her first time on stage in over two decades. “It’s been interesting,” she said, speaking about the play’s Adelaide run. “Trying to block out the audience members whose alarms are going off and have decided that they need to get up and stretch their legs because they’ve got a sore back or talking to the neighbour. That’s great. And embracing all of that. And the walkouts.”
Soon to appear alongside Eric Bana in the film Force of Nature, Briggs is similarly philosophical and points out theatre in its early days was rowdy and raucous, “there was no etiquette and rules”. “Where does all that come from? It’s about common sense, if you want to listen to someone, then listen,” he says. “Just be present. All of us have an issue with being present, I think that’s really all. It’s more about society than about theatre per se.”
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