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Audience Behaviour

August 3, 2011

Going to a show is always a risk – you may not enjoy what’s on stage, and you are £65 down if you don’t. A popular topic, both on my own website and at whatsonstage.com, are the other risks you also run being part of the audience. I’m not talking about the various attempts by directors at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre to kill the front row in 2011 (I’ll be the one in the crash helmet at ‘Crazy For You’ in a couple of weeks), nor the flying sweat and other substances emanating from hardworking thesps. I’m focussed on the nutters that happily fork over the £65 and then behave as if they are the only people in the auditorium – which they seem to regard as their own home sofa.

From Shakespeare’s time and right up to the Victorian era audience behaviour has been notoriously variable. I’m currently reading On, a collection of writings about Victorian Theatre by Charles Dickens. Dickens visits the best and worst London has to offer, and notes that silence really is golden during performances… since the tougher element in the crowd can be relied on to do physical harm to those unwilling to conform.

The infamous ‘extra’ services that might be found in the outer corridors are also documented, as is the catering available – giant jugs of beer and wine, cakes and thick sandwiches. Oddly, Dickens doesn’t mention infuriating rustling plastic sweet wrappers nor the content of boxes of Malteasers bouncing down the aisle… maybe he didn’t notice them… anyway…

What made me write something in the blog was being told about a caller to BBC Radio 2 last week, who reported that her and her autistic son had been asked to leave a West End show due to his behaviour. It has turned out that it was a member of the production team who made the request, and that an audience member stood up for the family concerned.

The radio conversation, which I was only told about, apparently split callers firmly into 2 camps – those who felt that ANY person disrupting the show should leave, and those who felt disability was a good enough reason to excuse any behaviour at all.

Without dealing with the specifics of this individual, or indeed this individual case at all, I can’t be the only person to feel totally divided by the whole issue it brings up in general. I’ve not doubt at all that in general I’d be furious if I’d paid £65 for a ticket, only to have somebody close by making so much noise that I couldn’t hear the show. Against that, of course, many people have health problems that are incredibly complicated conditions and nobody – but nobody – can deny that suffers deserve all the breaks they can get, as indeed do their carers.

I guess the question is, in our society, does absolutely everything have to be as ‘absolute’ as it seems to be at the moment? There was a time that the UK in particular was known for its inherent ‘moderation.’ The “Good Old British Compromise” was an instinctive way of life.

My theory is that our increasingly introverted behaviour is starting to erode our sense of compromise and leading to situations like this. More to the point, we are also losing the ability to take what was commonly known as a “Common Sense” approach to even the simplest situations.

Some theatres are unlucky in that they have few seats where a party can have a greater degree of privacy than usual. Sill, mindful of particular needs, they do have help that visitors can obtain beforehand (all theatres have excellent ‘special access’ departments) and staff are usually well trained to deal with situations arising on the day too. Maybe this will assist a few carers by making them aware that help is out there if they’d like it.

Enjoyment of any show isn’t just about the cast and crew working their hardest, it’s about us as an audience giving them our full attention, while also attending to those around us so that they can enjoy the experience equally – regardless of any condition they may have. Theatre is wonderful for anybody, and with common sense it is open to everyone.

6 Comments
  1. Ambassador Theatre Group permalink
    August 3, 2011 1:10 pm

    AMBASSADOR THEATRE GROUP STATEMENT

    We deeply regret any upset caused to the Morris family and would like to apologise for their bad experience last month at the Apollo Victoria in London.

    We are grateful to them for highlighting an issue that goes to the very heart of our company’s mission to provide an excellent experience for all our patrons. We firmly believe that everyone has the right to access live theatre, regardless of ability or disability, and we especially welcome children and young people.

    However, we must clarify two points of fact which have been overlooked in much of the coverage of this story.

    – The sound engineer did not complain about Gregor Morris, but merely alerted venue staff that there was a disturbance in the auditorium as she was concerned that someone was ill.

    – At no time were the Morris Family asked to leave the theatre. Mr Morris and his son left of their own accord, leaving his wife and daughter to watch the rest of the performance.

    ATG firmly believes that no patron should ever be asked to leave one of its theatres as a direct consequence of their disability. In this instance, whilst the staff concerned did not actually ask the family to leave, the way in which the situation was handled clearly resulted in the family feeling that they had no option. This is wholly unacceptable and we have apologised unreservedly for the distress caused to the Morris family.

    Whilst we have a comprehensive access policy and training programme, this incident has naturally caused us to review both to ensure that our training model is fit for purpose. This is underway now. We work with a number of disability organisations on an ongoing basis and will be seeking further advice from them as to how we can improve our staff training.

    ATG’s Joint CEO and Head of Learning and Access have both been in regular contact with Mr Morris and we are now working towards a positive outcome, including looking at ways of raising awareness of the needs of visitors with disabilities including in theatres nationally, and improving our practice through engaging with charities who specialise in this field.

    Ambassador Theatre Group

    • Steve Rich permalink
      August 3, 2011 1:53 pm

      This is very interesting. I didn’t highlight the event or venue in the posting, as I didn’t feel it appropriate – given the fact I hadn’t heard the broadcast or (as this reply points out) had all facts. The fact ATG chose to identify themselves here I applaud as openess in dealing with an awkward situation. I thank them for this.

      To clarify to ATG, the phone in was taken as a starting point for a blog entry, and was NOT a comment on the incident specifically nor the venue owner.

  2. Clive permalink
    August 8, 2011 11:37 am

    An interesting and important (to me anyway – as a regular theatregoer somewhat intolerant of those who can’t forgo eating or checking their mobile etc. during a performance) topic sensitively handled. I also have an interest in making sure that those with any disability still have comfortable access to the arts and clearly there is far more room for tolerance in these type of circumstances by most of us; but there is still a conflict and it was good to see some practical advice being given.

    I thought it was also a very good statement by ATG and taken at face value (and I have no reason not to do so) is indicative of a very positive attitude in general.

    It would be nice if more of the media could avoid sensationalising and making capital from specific incidents and focus on highlighting what can be complex issues and where help might be available.

    • Steve Rich permalink
      August 8, 2011 2:04 pm

      Thank you Clive. I’m glad the point I was trying to get over – that with a little thought anybody can enjoy the arts – came over so clearly.

  3. Sarah Louise permalink
    August 11, 2011 5:08 pm

    I was interested in this blog entry for several reason…. I am passionate about Theatre and get very upset at the people who spoil it for others with their rustling…chatting…fidgeting…rustling….chatting…leaning forward….feeling compelled to sit with their heads together not having any thought for the person behind (that gap is for their view you know guys!). I also have 2 children both with disabilities that could affect others
    ( Tourettes and ADHD) so I have sympathy with both sides of the argument! I do feel that if you KNOW a particular disability will affect others enjoyment then you should have some empathy for the fact that other people have paid a great deal of money to see the show(in tickets,travel and hotel costs etc) and expect to be able to see and hear it free from interuption. When my daughter with Tourettes had loud vocal tics and movements I would not have dreamed of taking her to the theatre even though she enjoyed it immensly..I just would not have seen it as fair..once she had a tic where she made a quiet “Hmmm” sound every now and then & I did not think it was bad enough for her to refrain from seeing a show so I took her to see Blood Brothers…the man next to her asked her to stop making the noise and eventually moved – my daughter was very embarrassed and did not go to the theatre for a long time afterwards! There have been times in the past when cinemas and certain theatres put on a special show for special people…. everyone there has a disability of some sort and there is no embarrassment as interuptions are expected.Of course I am not saying that disabled people should not enjoy the theatre…but consideration should be given if the disability is such that it is a sure thing that the performance will be interupted. I myself have had brain surgery and as a result my right leg kicks out periodically…this in itself could be very annoying to people around me so I always ask for an end seat where I can stretch out my leg and avoid annoying anyone with my fidgeting! I would also say that sweets and snacks(IF they have to have them!) should be provided in paper cups that do not rustle & anyone that has brought their own should be able to get an empty cup from the foyer prior to the performance,

    • Steve Rich permalink
      August 12, 2011 7:50 am

      Thanks Sarah, and I totally agree.

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