There has been a lot of talk lately about Hugh Jackman stopping a stage performance to yell at an audience member who’s phone rang. He is lauded for having the courage to stand up to that rude, horrible person who had no respect whatsoever for the performers on stage. Firstly, I find it amusing that the mainstream news is all a-twitter about the incident – those of us in the theater world know this is by no means the first time this has happened, it’s just the first time it’s happened to a Hollywood actor. Today Dominic Papatola was on MPR talking about the issue, and I think he made a very good point – while it was rude and self-indulgent of the audience member to answer his phone during the show, it was also self-indulgent of Mr. Jackman to stop the performance to yell at him. Distracting things happen all the time to stage performers. Why does this particular thing merit stopping the show? It only guarantees that every single person in the house will remember that it was the show when Hugh Jackman yelled at the audience, and that is all they will remember about the show.
We have become a society that often forgets how to be polite to each other. The little devices in our pockets often take prescedence over the real person we are talking to. We think nothing of answering the phone in a restaurant or looking up a bit of trivia during a movie. Is it rude to answer your phone during a theater performance? Certainly.
But I also wonder this: When did we decide that live theater should have a dead audience? By definition, theater is a live person performing for a live audience. It you don’t have that, you are watching a movie or reading a book. In Shakespeare’s time attending the theater was a raucous experience, where the lower classes paid a penny to stand in the sawdust below the stage and hurl laughter, insults, and produce at the performers. I am not suggesting that ushers start handing out tomatoes, but I do think we could benefit from loosening the behavior requirements we place upon our audiences. Turn off your phone. Don’t talk. Don’t eat candy. Don’t shift in your seat too much. Laugh, but not too loudly or annoyingly. We expect our audiences to behave like they would in church. I say that if we want our audiences to act like they are in church, it should be a Southern Baptist church, not the Vatican. I want my audience to be alive. I want them to breathe and laugh and cry and gasp and cheer. I want them to be fully involved in the experience, not sitting stiffly in their chairs while they are performed at. I want my actors to know that the audience is with them, pulling for them, hating them, hoping for them, exalting with them and despairing with them. Theater artists are constantly fighting the perception that our art is old, stuffy, and uninteresting to a younger audience. Maybe if we stopped expecting our audience to act old and stuffy more people would be interested in coming. It seems counterproductive to expect a live audience not to be alive. Should we discourage people from answering their phones at inappropriate times? Yes. Should we ask our audience to be alive and engaged and to let us know every step of the way? Yes. Otherwise it just isn’t theater.