Monday, May 11, 2009

Defending the Indefensible

I'm a big, big fan of Travis Bedard (as evidenced here), but I've been meaning to talk about this post for a while now, because I kind of disagree. Speaking of standing ovations, he says:

If I stand at your show? I’m not being polite. Applauding is polite. Standing is (or should be) the 30% tip of the performance world. I ain’t clapping because your famous and making an entrance, and I ain’t standing because I paid $50 (or $100 or $200) for my ticket. You want a standing ovation from me? Knock it out of the park.

This is sort of a trend in theatre circles. There's usually an article about the ubiquity of standing ovations and how degraded they've become once or twice a season. And then there's this from someone else I'm digging on lately, Ethan Stanislawski at Tynan's Anger:
It's no secret that audience behavior has taken a downturn on Broadway. That may be a bad thing for an individual show, but it's worse for Broadway overall; it means that the people with no experience seeing a Broadway show don't understand why they can't keep there phones on or text during a production, and when someone calls them out on it, they're less likely to see a show again, thinking it rude or snooty of a person to tell them how to behave after spending hundreds of dollars on tickets.

It's become a fairly common complaint. And I think it's off the mark and counter some of the things that we want our shows and theatres to be: accessible, engaging, interactive.

We treat the cell phones and the talkers and all of the "poor" behavior like it's the actions of poorly raised individuals who just don't know how to act out in the world. A couple of years ago, that was definitely true. Now...I gotta say...not so much. Cell phones and the way we use them are no ingrained in the fabric of our society. If we want to lament that our society has become tolerant of general rudeness, sure. But this isn't a lack of education or even experience in the theatre. It's how people interact with the world now. I think we would do well to simply acknowledge that.

I work as a teaching artist for a company that arranges to take high school kids to Broadway shows and every time we do, we're expected to give the kids a lecture on "proper" behavior in a theatre. It's a lesson they find pretty annoying and demeaning. When we were preparing the students this time around, I really felt like we were basically telling them to sit quietly, with their hands folded neatly in their laps, and smile. What better way to tell them that what they're going to see is boring. And, on the flip side, every single actor I know loves student matinees, because they get so much feedback from the audiences. The kids are actually more engaged when talking, acting out or whatever.

It's one of those things that keeps theatre feeling regressive and old-fashioned. It's part of the read-only nature. And, as we're seeing, read-only forms of expression are dying out. If we want to remain relevant, especially to younger generations, we have to prepare for interactivity.

In this American Theater piece, Kyle Jarrow talks about theatre being more like rock shows. If you go to a rock show now, everyone has a cell phone out, tweeting it, calling friends, taking pictures, uploading it to their facebook page or whatever. It's part of the experience. And it's an understood part of the experience. At movie theatres, yeah, they have their lame announcements, but the ushers aren't telling anyone to turn them off. And that culture pervades. Theatre, as live performance that's somewhere between rock show (hopefully) and movie, has different needs and requirements. Thinking about how we deal with cell phones is something I don't know if we're doing enough, consciously.

I say we go one of two ways. One way, we get serious about theatre as Temple or Sacred Space, and say no cellphones. Period. Not make sure they're off, especially after intermission, but none are allowed here at all. Not in the house, not in the lobby, not in front of the theatre. And we're going to confiscate them if we see them and return them after the show. Right now, in an effort to be amenable, we're in a grey area. We don't mind if you use it up until the lights go out and as soon as the lights come up, but please try not to use it when the show is going on. Or we'll look badly upon you. Get serious about it.

Or two. Embrace it. Encourage it. Work cell phones into your plays. Give people numbers to call during the show to talk to the characters backstage. Encourage people to post to your theatre twitter feed during the show. At this point, we should be teching cell phone rings in the show. It's going to happen and the standard issue is that it's disruptive to the actors and audience. Well, make sure it's not disruptive the actors. Make 'em work with it in tech.

And the standing ovations? I think it's part of the interactive nature of it. Yeah, they're totally degraded from what they used to be. In the wide world, standing ovations happen all the time. But rather than happening only when something exceptional has happened, they also happen at the point of the audience's greatest involvement. At a Yankee game, when Mariano Rivera is down to his last strike, the audience rises to its feet. But then again, they rise to their feet when Derek Jeter is up in the third with a man on first. And when A-Rod went up in the fifth, down one run. And when Joba Chamberlain had two strikes on Papi in the sixth. (This is clearly a fantasy, but roll with it.) It's became an audience's way of saying "We're here with you." Do we really want to discourage that? They're here with us. And that's a good thing.


Director said...

There's also the different opinions on what's a good show or not. For someone who never goes to the theatre and has never been to Broadway, they think Broadway is the best best best best and have probably only seen their kids' high school productions of Hamlet. When it's over, they're so impressed that they stand up and applaud.

For someone like us, who sees a lot of theatre and has a wide array of shows to compare this one to, it's easier to say "Well, that one was average..." than it would be for someone who never goes to theatre to begin with.

In other words, the standing O is relative. I still reserve it for shows that I think were amazing, but I don't get upset anymore when someone else stands up and applauds when I didn't think it was that great.

Travis Bedard said...

I honestly have forgotten to do a cell phone announcement for my last er... 5 shows?

But I think there are two different dynamics at play here:

1. Is audience behavior. They aren;t coming to the theatre frequently enough to know the difference between that a movie. But honestly it only ever bugs me when I'm in the audience... never on stage. I don't know how to teach them more conscientious behavior, but that's between them and their fellow audience members.

2. Is the lack of standards is I think what bugs me about the inflated standing O. Again it's about not going to enough shows like Brian said, but it's also about the need in the current cultural zeitgeist for everything you're involved with to be first, better, best. If it's not historic we don't care. To the extent that EVERY event has to be framed that way. And if you spent your money on a show you validate its quality and thus YOUR taste by giving it an A. I think. Maybe.

99 said...

I see you on the two different dynamics, but I do see a relationship between the two about our expectations of our audiences and how, I think, that needs to change.

Talking on your cell phone is a kind of rude behavior and it's rude in movie theatres, in restaurants, on crowded subway cars, wherever. And it's happening in all of those places. It annoys the people around you. But people are annoyed by talkers, loud eaters, people who laugh too much. My whole point is that we spend so much time complaining about something that is an individual act of rudeness as though it were a blight upon the world. Rude people are going to talk on the phone at inappropriate times. You deal with them as rude people. In the theatre, though, we deal with it as though it were some slight against art and that makes us seem even more backwards. I say either embrace them or ban them, totally. You deal with a rude person as you deal with a rude person.

The connection I see with the standing ovation is the idea that we have to educate people how to behave, what's worthy of a standing ovation. In terms of the standing O, I think the culture has changed its meaning. And, again, looking down our nose at it can come off as...snobby. I don't think you are, of course, but you add that to the librarian shushing and the general feeling of old fashioned-ness that theatre can put out and we wonder why young people aren't coming...