bleeding hearts and sympathetic ears: a response to Xtra’s Theatre Issue

This post is a response to two articles in the most recent “Theatre Issue” of Toronto’s Xtra Magazine. The articles in question are mainly “Down in Front” (pg. 30), but also, to a lesser extent, “United We Stand” (p. 24).

Is there really not enough to talk about in the theatre world that in your “theatre issue” two fifths of the feature articles are about chastising audience members?

If the goal of “The Theatre Issue” is to spread the word about theatre and to get new readers interested in coming to the amazing things our theatre community is working on, then we should agree that these new readers/potential theatre goers have done nothing to offend us yet. Whatever happened to optimism? Why have we become so xenophobic?

Fine, those people I don’t know can come, but they can’t touch my stuff.

If the goal is not to garner new interest in theatre, then congratulations! You have successfully aired your grievances to sympathetic ears and essentially done nothing to further theatre’s image of being an inclusive and open community. In fact, if anything, this will reinforce to the uninitiated that theatre people are a bunch of snobs who charge too much for their often lacklustre shows and screw it, I’m just going to spend the twelve dollars and go see a movie, or a show at Lee’s where I can hang out with my friends and have a drink at the same time the band is playing.

What has been accomplished, if the latter truly is the purpose of the article, is equivalent to posting anti-Stephen Harper sentiments on your twitter feed for your left-leaning and liberal followers in a meagre attempt to get a few favourites and re-tweets.

Now, I’m not saying we should allow, or even endorse this sort of behaviour, or that we should lie down at our audience members’ feet, begging them for the right to put on a show. What I am saying is pick your battles. After all, isn’t this why theatres hire ushers? So that if any of these offences are committed, they can step in an chastise them to their faces?

What is the point of theatre if we do everything we can to alienate our audience? Even Brecht worked against this. The purpose of his alienation was to awaken the audience, to show them that they are inhabiting the same space as the living people on stage in front of them, and to turn the audience into one found at a baseball game or boxing match. Because no matter how hard you want the audience to believe that they are in Ancient Rome, there’s no escaping the fact they are actually sitting in a little black box with sixty other people looking at a set made out of papier mache.

If we suppress the audience, if we don’t care about the reactions coming from the live crowd sitting in the seats in font of us (we’ve also, apparently, taken to chastising our audiences when they show us support. See, “United We Stand”) why don’t we just make film? If we just want to perform in front of empty husks, why should we even care about people coming to the theatre at all?

Seriously, stop touching my stuff.

Have you ever seen a show, or performed a show to a group of seniors? Seniors are among the most numerous patrons of the theatre (yes, it’s usually of canonical works and safe productions at community theatres or Mirvish stages) but they are also amongst the most vocal. They will let you know, whether you like it or not, how they felt. To be performing in a tragedy and have the villain do something dastardly, as they usually do, and then to hear a lady turn to her friend and say, “No he didn’t!” or, “What a crook,” is one of the most endearing and reassuring experiences an actor can have. Because they are present. Yes, they may be treading on your pet peeves, but they are engaged. And they can’t, and don’t care about keeping their emotions and reactions to themselves. It is absolutely lovely.

Theatre will not survive if left to snobbery.

So, yes, turn your damned cell-phones off. That includes you, theatre people. But don’t assume that everyone coming to the theatre is about to commit a crime. They are there for the same reason you are: they want to see a show. If one person in the audience is ruining that for everyone else, please, don’t be afraid to tap them on the shoulder and say something instead of complaining to your like-minded friends afterwards and writing articles about it that more of your like-minded friends will read. In essence, stop being so bloody Canadian!

I will leave you with this:

“[…] when I lived in New York, other than like midnight movies in Times Square, you will not find more polite movie theatre audiences anywhere in the world. And there’s a reason why people tend to be, I think, better behaved in New York City, which is: in New York City, if you’re a dick, you will get your teeth knocked out. There will be someone right there, literally, in New York City, if you’re, like, texting and being a dick in the movie theatre, someone will hand you your teeth. Someone will hit your face. And you know what? The world needs some of that. It’s just checks and balances.”

– Tom Lennon on the Nerdist episode 300