Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Booing the Applause?

I've never seen he Hobbit films. Nor have I seen the Martin Freeman production of Richard III discussed in this article. I do think I'm qualified to discuss applause, however, both appropriate and inappropriate.

Assuming of course there is any truly inappropriate applause, and there's the rub.

In the case of Freeman, many Hobbit fans have come to see his Richard III just for the chance to see him live and, it would appear, express their appreciation for said Hobbit movies by giving him enthusiastic applause. Every single time he enters. It would seem that this is ruining the play for Shakespeare fans who have come to the production to actually watch a Shakespeare play. The applause, they say, takes them out of the story, and should be reserved only for the curtain call.

I don't agree that applause should only happen at the end of a production, even of Shakespeare. Applauding the first entrance of an actor of renown has been a part of the theatre for quite some time. An appreciation of their stature in the theatre world, and an acknowledgement of their previous body of work, though not required is nevertheless acceptable as well as understandable.  Each actor has only one initial entrance, after all.

Nor do I mind, and in fact as an actor I welcome applause at the end of a scene well done. If the drama or comedy of a scene has particularly moved an audience member, we do the theatre a disservice if we discourage applause between scenes. The theatre can't continue to beg for active audiences and then proceed to silence them at every turn.

There is of course a limit to the acceptability of applauding, though, beyond which it becomes meaningless. I'm right on the border when it comes to applauding at the end of every scene in a production, a growing trend among casual theater-goers, especially of children's plays. On one hand, a well written and well performed play will build tension after each scene, and applause may be a way to relieve that tension and express gratitude for a job well done. On the other hand, not every scene warrants applause, and as I said, it becomes cheap after a while.

Applauding for a specific actor every time he enters the stage? Infantile. By giving standing ovations complete with hooting and whistling every time a certain actor merely walks on stage, and again whenever he walks off, a patron is broadcasting to the world that they have come not to consume theatre, but merely to be in the same building with someone who contributed to a movie with which they are currently obsessed. It's fandom, not appreciation. Such behavior commandeers a production and converts it into an impromptu comic convention. Only a pathological egotist, even by theatre standards, would take any joy from it.

It would detract from my enjoyment of such a production as well.

That being said, I doubt anything can be done about it. The Hobbit-fanatics have paid for their tickets like anyone else. They're the audience at that point, and so long as they aren't preventing the play from moving forward, one can't charge them with heckling, or true disruption. Even if one could, how does one go about ejecting a few hundred people from an audience in the middle of a performance? The logistics would be a nightmare, and the inevitable fallout would be a nightmare within a nightmare.

Theatre companies might just have to get cute if they hope to stop such displays. They may have to limit their shows to smaller, more intimate settings, where such screaming would feel less socially appropriate. One thing a teenager doesn't want to feel is awkward, and a smaller space may play on that fear. But then the show makes far less money.

A theatre could put an age limit on the show, but that only caters to the suspicions that Shakespeare isn't for young people. Further, plenty of full grown adults who are too old for such behavior willingly resort to brainless fangirl status when faced with their obsession. The much talked about extended-adolescence of young adults today may have many causes, none of which I'll discuss here. I mention it only to point out that an age limit would not be a limit on such behavior.

The most effective potential remedy for such screaming would probably be a cultural immersion in theatre etiquette. But etiquette of any kind has taken a backseat in recent years to constant and unbridled self-expression and digital distraction. Combine that with a population that is already seeing less theatre, and etiquette education seems silly. The arts as a whole allowed etiquette to fall by the way side for too long, and it may be too late to bring it back. Even if it were brought back, it's not likely to mean much to people who come to the theatre once in their lives not to enjoy acting or appreciate nuance, but to inhabit the same general space as Martin Freeman, or Daniel Radcliffe, or any number of other actors who dare to star in fantasy-oriented material with a slant toward children and teens.

I'm out of ideas myself. I agree, as I said, that such activity is obnoxious. But as it represents a stark social shift in what is acceptable at the theatre, I suspect that only a stark social shift on the part of theatres in how they deal with such distractions has any hope of stemming the tide of rabid fandom leaking into arts culture.

"Do control yourself, and show some respect, for this is the theatre," may be the dignified, classic arts way of addressing the issue, but when a few hundred people are still screaming and clapping and whistling their love for Martin Freeman an hour and a half into a show, something tells me such admonitions will not be enough.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Free of Charge Is Not Free of Quality

This piece from The Guardian hit home with me. In it the author counters the sadly common perception that if a theatre production is free, it must not be good. The production values, so go the assumption, are low, because there is likely no budget to the piece, and the producers would be embarrassed to charge people money to come see it.

That way of thinking ignores several facts, not the least of which is that paying sometimes exorbitant prices to see a show does not guarantee quality of a production. Why then should we feel that a free production can not be also a fantastic one?

Most of the production I've been in have been either pay what you can or low cost. Not all of them, I must admit, were fine productions, but the majority were. That's because the quality came not from the money spent and money made on the show, but on how much I and the rest of the cast and crew wanted to do well. When their is no financial incentive you can bet the money you are not paying for a ticket that people are in the show because they want to be, and that matters.

Quality is a decision to work hard, nothing more. When that decision is made by everyone involved in a show, and all of the same people enjoy one another's company the quality of every aspect of the production increases. That chemistry and that pride can't help but show through to an audience. Audiences, whether they realize or not, respond better to shows where the cast and crew enjoy what they're doing and enjoy one another.

This is especially true with audiences who don't come to the theater o a regular basis. Audiences who in some location may not be able to afford the average price of a ticket. And since free shows would allow more people to enjoy a production, the better the experience is for all involved. It's cyclical. 

Some may argue that those who see shows for free have made no investment, and hence have no incentive to behave well or to respect the actors. That may be true for a certain element, I concede, but then again such people are not likely to show respect for something even if they did make a small investment in same. A decent person either respects someone's work, or they do not. With few exceptions I've not in my years as an actor detected a noticeable drop off in how receptive or well-behaved an audience is when admission is free or low cost.

In either case, that speaks to the quality of the audience, and not the quality of the performances.

The piece goes on to mention a few professional companies offering free performances for limited time. That's nice, but I don't think it's the same as producing a show that is free from the start. If an otherwise expensive company throws a few bones out there, people are not likely to assume that there is a poor quality free show in the offing. They will merely take note of the fact that the company is giving away seat for a few days.

We see many different types of art for free, in museums and galleries. Our parks host free concerts in summer time on a regular basis. The fear of poor quality in those cases doesn't seem nearly as strong as it is for free theater. Perhaps it is a side effect of theater as a whole being beyond the means of so many people for so long, I don't know. I do know that those who skip theater because they aren't paying much, if anything to see it are depriving themselves of some wonderful experiences. If it's bad, then of course they haven't lost anything, and can leave. But if it's wonderful, (and if often is) they've received for more than a free place to sit in a dark room for a few hours; they've had their humanity confirmed and might just feel a bit less lonely in the world after the show.

Sounds like a decent trade in for nothing.