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Don’t treat audiences like cattle

I work in theatre, and so often see shows out of a sense of obligation: I know one of the actors, I should probably see [a certain writer’s work] live at least once, etc. After a while, if you see enough theatre, you start seeing the same devices over and over. I made a decision to see less and started planning to pass my tickets on to friends.

Then I saw 2 productions in 3 days that changed how I felt. Not, in fact, so much because of the productions themselves, although both were great, but because of how the productions treated the audiences.

The Pitchfork Disney

Tom Rhys Harries

The first was The Pitchfork Disney at the Shoreditch Town Hall. I didn’t know the play beforehand, but have since learned that it’s considered to be a seminal work of ’90’s in yer face British theatre. My sister offered to get us tickets for my birthday, and I was intrigued to see it despite my resolution, because of a) the venue (the basement of a town hall), and b) the fact that it was sold out (my sister had to ask the director for house tickets).

I made sure to get there early as the seats were unallocated, and my sister and I found ourselves on a chair and a chest in the middle of a long sitting room that was the setting of the play. When one character pushed another up against the wall they did so right next to me, and brushed my leg. When another in a latex mask stood on a chair and screamed a lullaby I could have reached out and touched him. We weren’t watching 2 people stuck in an apartment together, we were stuck in the apartment with them.

The Pitchfork Disney

I’d been to immersive theatre productions before (e.g. Punchdrunk), but the storytelling and acting always took second place to the design (could anyone have worked out that The Drowned Man was based on Woyzeck if they hadn’t been told beforehand?). In this case, however, there was great writing (Philip Ridley) performed by great actors (e.g. Tom Rhys Harries) directed by a great director (Jamie Lloyd), as well as great design (Soutra Gilmour).

Roman Tragedies

An even bigger shock came 2 days later when I attended Toneelgroep Amsterdam‘s 6-hour adaptation of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra at the Barbican, entitled Roman Tragedies. I’d seen previous work by the company and director (Ivo van Hove, who directed David Bowie’s Lazarus, among other things), but nothing prepared me for this.

View from the stage

We sat in our allocated seats to begin with, but at the end of the first half hour some muzak came on and a friendly Dutch voice informed us that we were now free to wander around the theatre, including onto the stage, where there was a bar and café and lots of sofas. There was even an info desk where you could charge your phone and pick up a time sheet which listed exactly when all of the characters die, so that you didn’t accidentally miss a good bit because you were getting a drink. The action was being live-streamed and screened on TV’s dotted about and above the stage, with English subtitles, so that a piece of action might be happening to your left but shown in close up in front of you:

(And before you object that I wasn’t supposed to be filming the thing, Jude Law was on stage and took a snap of Julius Caesar when he died, and he’s in a production with the same theatre company later this year!)

We were encouraged to keep our phones on but on silent, so that we could send out tweets about the show, some of which would get displayed above the stage. When I got slightly bored about 3½ hours in, I started trying to come up with funny tweets to amuse myself and hopefully get a reaction from the audience if they were displayed. (I started off with an Asterix reference and tweeted, These Romans are crazy, and then when several characters had died in the same place on the stage I wrote, That piece of carpet is a death trap.) One of the actors, playing Mark Anthony, liked one of my tweets in the middle of the show:

Split screen

Hans Kesting

What was the effect of all of this? The first is that I didn’t feel so much like an audience member but more like a collaborator, as if we were all working together to pull off this implausible 6-hour feat. If audience members were sitting on some part of the stage where some actors were about to perform, the actors would gently explain that they needed that bit for the next scene. I saw a cameraman joke with an audience member in between shots. And how often is it that an actress makes a dramatic exit and you get hit by the smell of her perfume on the way out?

The second is that I wasn’t bothered by distractions. Usually I get incensed if someone gets out their phone to check the time during a play and disrupts the darkness with a glaring rectangle. But because the production permitted phones and used so many screens anyway I instantly relaxed, in a way that I never had during a play or concert. And you know what? When something genuinely moving happened, everyone shut up. And why wouldn’t we? We’d paid for high-quality drama. The production treated us like adults and we behaved as such.

Back to the real world

The production gave me more clarity about the whole theatregoing experience when I went back to the reality of regular theatre productions. One incident came to mind from a couple of months before, when I was having a drink with an actor friend who was in a show with an American TV star. We could see the theatre from the bar, and there was a queue of mostly teenage girls waiting in the freezing January air to meet their idol. My friend commented: They’re not going to see him. He’ll go out the back exit and straight to yoga. Why not spend 15 minutes saying hello to people who spent £75 and half an hour in the cold to meet you? It made me reflect on how segregated the theatrical experience is: the audience goes in one entrance and the actors go in another, they’re separated by a barrier during the performance, and afterwards they go out through their separate exits, as if the theatre is an elite world which the audience only get to look at.

Then, 2 days after my Roman Tragedies experience I was at a mediocre but nevertheless highly-acclaimed West-End production of a classic that I knew wasn’t selling well, because I was able to get free tickets, and before the show started a member of the audience took out their phone to take a picture of the stage. An usher ran over to them angrily: “No pictures of the set! No pictures of the set!” Really? What did the management think was going to happen? That someone would see a low-quality iPhone snap of the stage and say, I don’t need to see this 2-hour classic drama, I know what the set looks like? The production was actively policing people who were trying to give free marketing to a show that wasn’t selling. Insanity.

Conclusion

Hitchcock was famously quoted as saying all actors are cattle, which he corrected: I never said all actors are cattle, what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle. Leaving aside the question of whether or not actors should be treated like cattle, I think that most theatre audiences are treated like cattle. So a message to all producers:

Don’t treat audiences like cattle. Treat them like collaborators and they will sell your show for you.