If you run a theatre and the audiences don’t come, it’s on you. Not the weather, nor the match on the telly, nor the reviews, good or bad. It’s your show. That’s why people turn up and also why they don’t.
It follows – from this, admittedly, one-sided view – that pretty much anything the audience does in your theatre, the place where you set the circumstances, is your responsibility.
Last month, police riot vans were called to Manchester’s Palace Theatre. Several audience members were forcibly removed during a performance of The Bodyguard because “they were trying to sing over the cast”.
That incident isn’t isolated; at the Peacock Theatre, London a performance was halted after talking, swearing and singing disrupted the show. Maybe the clue was in its title – Bat Out of Hell. In February, the director of Edinburgh Playhouse decried audience members who “choose to sing, dance and talk throughout the show in a manner that disturbs others”.
Like a good drama, the issue has built to a crescendo, involving disputes between different sections of the audience, abuse of front-of-house staff, mini-riots and, inevitably, a heated debate in the press and on social media.
I’m the first to “Shsssh!” at the mere rustle of a sweet wrapper and I sympathise with people who dislike their carefully planned, expensive night out being upset. I feel especially for the ushers, often the most put-upon and worst paid members of staff.
And yet, I’d say, none of them – paying public and underpaid workers – should be put in that situation in the first place.
When the audience is part of the action
Audience participation is part of live show business, often encouraged by theatres themselves. A Christmas show needs everyone yelling out, singing along and butting in. I’ve seen polite pantos and they’re dismal.
I knew a guy who worked as a foreman on a building site by day but, several nights a year he’d get into tails, tights, spats, suspenders, fake hunchback and bald wig, and head off to the Pavilion, Glasgow. He and hundreds of others loved The Rocky Horror Show – not just to cosplay but to take an active part in proceedings with rude gestures, responses and stuff thrown onstage. I just hope the cleaners and ushers got extra money.
The trend of jukebox musicals has grown in recent years. These are expressly staged to milk the public’s familiarity with the songs.
We Will Rock You, Ben Elton’s implausible plot hidden by brilliant Queen numbers, was one of the early back-catalogue shows. Motown the Musical features 50 infectious tracks from Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, the Supremes, the Temptations and Stevie Wonder – surely you would itch to join in?
You could, for The Bodyguard incident, blame Dolly Parton. If she hadn’t written such a fabulously infectious number as I Will Always Love You, people might not have joined in so heartily!
When &Juliet, a mash-up of Shakespeare and 28 karaoke tunes, opened in 2019, the Guardian declared it “misguided”; the show kept packing them in.
Sunshine on Leith is a great hybrid of well kent numbers and moving drama. As each tune started, a woman in front of us stood up, singing “When I wake up…”. But 500 Miles is the finale, so her number didn’t come up until the end – and then all of us danced, laughed and sang together.
Shows that encourage people to join in
Other shows go out of their way to include the audience in the action. Jacob Collier, musical prodigy, thrills his public with mass participation harmonising in complex, multilayered singalongs. The Harvard Crimson wrote that he “fostered a truly unique experience that allowed his fans to feel like they were a part of something bigger than themselves”.
This coming November, Gareth Malone plays the Pavilion with Sing-Along-A-Gareth-Two. He and his band compose songs with the audience on the spot in a feast of collective rhythm.
To welcome people who find a theatre visit daunting, many playhouses now offer “relaxed performances”, mainly for those with autism, sensory communication or learning issues. Presumably this could spread to other paying customers.
Some shows are including dance and standing areas. ABBA Voyage, all the hits performed by digital avatars (or Abbatars), has eight dance booths and a spacious dance floor in front of the stage.
For Guys and Dolls, currently running at London’s Bridge Theatre, you can stand, move around ever-shifting rostra and be immersed in the action.
A new way to make theatre more accessible?
All these shows and venues are of course different, but the idea of audience engagement has clearly moved centre stage recently. The pandemic blitzed audience figures – now, in post-Covid times, are people inching their way back, looking for more communal fulfilment?
Many theatre buildings are old, suited to a different age. The Italianate structure – seats on different levels, all facing a proscenium arch – dates from the 17th century and still holds sway in many auditoria in 2023.
Are audiences, in their desire to sing and dance in the British aisles, telling us something? Is it time for a new configuration of spectators, performers and action?
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