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Theatre: The New Audience: How a Culture Evolves

By Wendy Caster
ART TIMES Fall 2015

In Shakespeare’s day, heckling was common. The groundlings (people who bought cheap tickets and stood right in front of the stage) flirted, argued, got drunk, and even urinated right there, while the show was going on. The wealthier people carried on their own intrigues in the more expensive seats, including the hiring of prostitutes.

I would have hated it. Patti LuPone would have hated it more! But it was accepted theatre-going culture of its time.

What is the theatre-going culture of our time? Many of us prefer a rapt audience, free of texting, eating, talking, and crinkling. I would call us the Traditional Audience, although we practice a relatively new tradition. The idea of a quiet group of people sitting in a darkened auditorium respecting the fourth wall is arguably less than 200 years old. And it is fighting for its life.

The New Audience has different values. But what are those values? Texting makes it impossible to be completely involved in a show. Talking makes it impossible to be completely involved. Eating makes it impossible to be completely involved. So, not only does the New Audience hurt the enjoyment of the Traditional Audience, but they hurt their own. Or do they? What exactly does a New Audience member want from an experience in the theatre?

I know what Traditional Audience members seek. Being able to hear a pin drop during a tense scene. Sharing other people’s emotions, both on stage and in the audience. Luxuriating in the silent vibrations of a perfect final note of a breath-taking song. Theatre is a mindful experience for the Traditional Audience. We love and respect the performers in front of us. The performance is about the people on stage—and behind it.

The New Audience wants the performance to be about them, and they want proof!

Benedict Cumberbatch recently explained in the New York Times the problem with people filming his Hamlet with their cells phones: “I can’t give you what I want to give you, which is a live performance that you will remember hopefully in your minds and brains, whether it is good, bad or indifferent, rather than on your phones.”

I once went whale-watching, and we had extraordinarily good luck. Two gray whales were mating, so we got excellent looks at them, along with their hanky-panky. Yet I was virtually the only person on the boat who actually saw them. Everyone else was taking pictures. None would be able to “remember hopefully in your minds and brains, whether it is good, bad or indifferent, rather than on your phones.” (Or cameras, in this pre-smartphone case.)

Was that whale-watching moment, some 30 years ago, part of a major cultural shift that has moved indoors? Now everyone has a camera and seemingly everyone wants that souvenir, that proof, that they were there. That the event was about them.

Texting, eating, drinking, talking, filming—they all focus on the audience member rather than the performance. Madonna was not putting the cast (or audience) first when she texted during Hamilton. As Jonathan Groff, who plays George III, tweeted, “That bitch was on her phone. You couldn’t miss it from the stage. It was a black void of the audience in front of us and her face there perfectly lit by the light of her iPhone through three-quarters of the show.” Hamilton is one of the most brilliant pieces of theatre ever, and Madonna didn’t turn off her phone to watch it. Madonna is famous for her self-involvement, but she’s not unique in the New Audience.

The New Audience can be even more annoying when they are seemingly most involved in a show. Take the barking hyper-laugher. We’ve all sat near him or her on occasion. The laughing shows appreciation, but for whom? I think the laugh is a performance, loud, insistent, declaring, “I’m here. I’m smart and savvy. I get it.”

And then there are the screamers. They bring the energy—and behavior—they might bring to a rock concert or a football game.

I went to the first stadium rock concert of my life not long ago: Fleetwood Mac at Madison Square Garden. The yelling was wonderful and the singing along was wonderful and the general chaos was wonderful. The performance was about all 20,000 of us, with Stevie and Chrissie and John and Lindsay and Mac acting as leaders, rather than the sole focus. I had a great time.

But when people scream the same exact way at plays and musicals, it’s awful! At recent performances of Little Shop of Horrors and The Wild Party at the Encores summer series, the audience yelled and whooped as though they were watching Sarah Bernhardt, Judy Garland, and John Lennon come back from the dead (not that they could necessarily identify those people!). And this was before anyone on stage had done anything! When that level of response becomes the norm, it also becomes devalued. Similarly, when standing ovations were rare, they were thrilling. Now they’re an opportunity to put on your jacket.

The New Audience adores performers without respecting them. In theatre, however, silence is often a greater gift than noise. Silence and rapt attention!

Applause should be earned. Cheers should be earned. Noise for the sake of noise can be demoralizing. John Lennon talked about the problems the Beatles had trying to play well amidst the screaming girls at their concerts. Today’s theatre audiences don’t scream through entire songs – yet, anyway – but they cheer too far into the beginning and too soon before the end. Musical performers devote their lives to doing the best job they can; shouldn’t we just listen?

I don’t like this new culture. I miss theatre as something hushed, unique, special, sacred, even snobby.

But as I write this, I have to admit my own role in the lowering of theatre standards. When I started going to shows, people still dressed up. Heck, I know people who dressed up to watch the Tonys at home. I was part of the young group who dressed casually, and I was annoyed by people who wrote articles – much like this one – bewailing the loss of class. My response was simple. I was working a minimum wage job, and my money went to theatre tickets, not to clothing. Now, when I see pictures of people dressed up for the theatre in the old days, I see that we’ve lost a level of occasion, of ceremony.

The Traditional Audience is not going without a fight. Many teachers and parents are trying to win young people over to our side. Traditional Audience members try to educate the noisy people next to them, largely, I suspect, without much effect. People write articles like this one, but does anyone from the New Audience read them? Would they care? They seem to be having a perfectly good time.

A last vestige of the Traditional Audience is the pre-show announcement “Please turn off your cellphone. Please don’t rattle candy.” And so on. But who’s listening? New Audience members have no intention of turning off their phones; they don’t care what you think or what the performers think; they need the phones on because they’re addicting to texting or want to share their experience on Facebook. If people text while driving, risking their lives, why would a little announcement stop them?

Many producers like the New Audience as an extra income source. They let audience members take food and drinks into the auditorium, where they crinkle their incredibly overpriced bags of M&Ms and rattle the ice in their incredibly overpriced sodas. For producers, money trumps tradition and respect for actors.

The New Audience is winning. Phones will ring, texts will be sent, people will chew noisily on ice or gum, others will talk or sing along, and still others will overlaugh, scream, and yell, because that’s what they want to do. And that’s how a culture changes. That’s how a new audience replaces an old audience.

It is usual for an older generation to believe their ways are better in some objective sense, and many older generations have been wrong. Nevertheless, I know that the New Audience doesn’t understand what it’s missing. And I will continue to fight for the quiet, rapt audience, even as I fear the battle will be lost.

( Wendy Caster is an award-winning writer living in New York City. Her reviews appear regularly on the blog Show Showdown. Her short plays You Look Just Like Him and The Morning After were performed as part of Estrogenius festivals. Her published works include short stories, essays, and one book. )