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Theatre: To Stay or Not to Stay: That Is the Question

By Wendy Caster
ART TIMES Jan/ Feb 2016 online

Every now and then, a controversy breaks out about leaving shows during intermission. Is it fair, acceptable, reasonable, and/or kosher? (You can find some of these debates listed after this essay; make sure to check out the comments, which are, let us say, lively).

In some ways, the debate comes down to this: What does the audience owe the cast and creators of a show? My answer is: Arriving on time, keeping an open mind, and paying full attention to what’s happening on stage.

A related question is: What do the cast and creators of a show owe the audience? There are a lot of answers, but the most relevant one here is: Not to waste our time.

I have walked out of many shows. The very first one was Ride the Winds in 1974. I was clearly not alone in my lack of respect for the show, as it ran only three performances. In those days, I was a hyper teenager, barely able to sit still unless I had a very good reason. Ride the Winds was not a very good reason.

The most recent show I left was Therese Raquin, starring Keira Knightly, at the Roundabout Theatre in New York. (Three of us left; one stayed. He regretted it.) I am no longer as hyper as I was, and I could have made it through the second act, but why? I’m not going to live forever—why would I waste even one precious hour? (My evening hours are particularly precious, since I see 70 to 100 shows a year.)

Many shows in the decades between 1974 and now have not been better than reading, hanging out with friends, or even, in some sad cases, doing the dishes. I make no apology for leaving.

I accept that I take a risk every time I walk out. Perhaps the writer has something brilliant up her sleeve that will make the entire experience worthwhile. Perhaps there is an amazing dance number in the second act. Oh well. I’m willing to take that risk.

Some people refuse to walk out of a show—even one they despise—because the tickets were expensive and they want to justify their investment. They are succumbing to something financial experts call the “sunk costs fallacy,” which is a fancy way of saying that they are throwing good money (time) after bad. Staying for the second act does not bring their money back.

Then there are the people who stay because they feel they owe it to the performers. I respect that. However, people are not obligated to finish my essays just because they started them—I have to earn my audience’s interest every step of the way. So do performers and shows.

And what about reviewers with free tickets? Are they obligated to stay for the whole show? Nope. (Though they should think long and hard before leaving, as they are not simply audience members.) If I give you a free copy of my book, are you required to read the whole thing? Nope.

Reviewing a play after walking out is a separate topic. On one hand, leaving is a review. On the other, the reviewer has not actually seen the show.

I avoiding leaving when I have press tickets, but (rarely) I’ll hate a show so much that I simply cannot stay. In those cases, I’ll write an honest email to the press person, and I don’t write a review. Is that the most honorable solution? Yes, in terms of the people affiliated with the show, since I didn’t see the whole thing. No, in terms of my readers, who might have been warned away. There’s no 100% perfect option.

I know people who walk out during blackouts between scenes, even if they’re not in an aisle seat. I think that’s going too far. I know people who leave noisily, making sure the rest of the audience witnesses their contempt. That strikes me as flat-out rude.

But getting up quietly, at intermission, and simply neglecting to return? Go for it. Life is short.


Debates on walking out during a show
The Stranger (blog)
Wall Street Journal
The Guradian

Wendy Caster writes theatre reviews for the blog Show Showdown. She is also a playwright and a novelist.