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Richard Jordan: Theatre shouldn’t lose sight of good behaviour in the search for new audiences

Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn in True West at Vaudeville Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn in True West. Harington has spoken out against snootiness in the theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner
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Two experienced actors currently playing in the West End have responded very differently to breaches of audience etiquette during their shows.

Writing in The Stage, actor Hayley Tamaddon recounted how, during a performance of Everyone’s Talking About Jamie, a member of the audience yelled “fuck off” at her. It is evident from her writing how deeply unsettling she had found the experience.

After the show, fans at the stage door who had sat near the offender said she had also been disruptive during the performance, using her phone and talking loudly to friends sitting beside her. Tamaddon called for greater audience etiquette both in courtesy to fellow audience members and towards those actors up on stage doing their job.

A few streets away, Kit Harington is starring in True West. He recently told Time Out about his previous West End appearance in Doctor Faustus. “We wanted to get young audiences in and we got them, and then some people got pissed off that they were not obeying the etiquette of the theatre. And, yeah, I don’t like flashes going off, but I fucking hate snootiness in the theatre.”

‘Considerate behaviour has nothing to do with snootiness – it’s about courtesy, manners and a bit of common sense’

In theatre, I would suggest that disruptive behaviour is by the few rather than the many; nevertheless, a small group can spoil the experience for many others. Does this really have to be accepted as an essential part of growing new audiences?

Considerate behaviour has nothing to do with snootiness, the amount someone has paid for their ticket or whether they are a seasoned theatregoer or not. It’s about courtesy, manners and a bit of common sense. We are also often too quick to blame all this on new audience members, but I have seen many regular theatregoers behave badly.

Harington was quick to defend his audiences in 2016 when I wrote about the disruption I had experienced watching Doctor Faustus. That’s perfectly understandable; after all, many attending are the individuals who helped make him a star.

While he may be less bothered by audience misbehaviour, it’s clear not all actors feel the same. Tamaddon’s experience underlines that no one – especially the actors performing – should have to put up with it.

Richard Jordan: Is this the worst West End audience ever?

Everyone’s Talking About Jamie and True West are shows that will attract new theatregoers. But in finding those new patrons, should we forget all theatre etiquette? Should we have to accept the noise from someone’s headphones on a train because we want to encourage more people to use public transport even if it ruins the journey for those nearby?

Clearly, no one wants excited audience members flocking to see their favourite stars to have their night diminished because of a stuffy atmosphere. It just needs balance.

This is not a modern-day issue alone. The actor Victor Spinetti once told me about when he was starring on Broadway in Oh What a Lovely War as the Drill Sergeant – a role for which he won a Tony award. It was at the height of Beatle-mania and he had starred in both Beatles movies, Help! and A Hard Day’s Night. When he walked out on stage nightly, the large number of Beatles fans in the audience would scream and shout.

He would hold his hand up, welcome the audience and tell them this was an important play about the First World War and to respect their fellow audience members and the cast, but at the end to come down to the front of the auditorium where he would host a 15-minute Beatles Q&A from the stage.

Throughout the show’s Broadway run, this is how it played out nightly. Ultimately, it served both the play and the mix of people attending. Crucially, it also meant there was respect shown on stage to his fellow company members. In fairness, Spinetti and his fellow actors did not have to contend with mobile phones or those eating noisily in the audience – the latter seeming to be a far more endemic problem in the West End than on Broadway.

Tamaddon raised an important question when she asked: “Would you stand up in your office, and shout swear words across the room at a work colleague?” Therefore why is it any different for an actor?

There is a famous theatre tale of the actress Pia Zadora in The Diary of Anne Frank, playing the lead in a US stage production. It was a role she apparently performed so badly that on opening night when the Nazis arrived, a member of the audience yelled: “She’s in the attic!” We may well laugh and it’s an anecdote that’s taken on a legendary status, but for Zadora, the moment was undoubtedly heartbreaking, and at worst, it perpetuates a notion that actors are “fair game”.

Some comments in response to Tamaddon’s column have suggested she misunderstood this particular audience member’s reaction as she was so wrapped up in the performance and was therefore wrong to call them out on it. I did not witness the incident and can only base my opinion on Tamaddon’s account.

‘Mercifully, actors no longer have to duck the tomatoes thrown by disgruntled audience members in the old days’

Actors performing on stage have a lot to contend with and that’s not just about remembering lines or jumping out of the way when a fast-moving piece of scenery lurches on to the stage. Mercifully, they no longer have to duck the tomatoes thrown by disgruntled audience members in the old days. That there were times in history when audiences in the pit were vocally and even physically reactive to the performance is a popular argument from those defending audience behaviour today.

I feel Tamaddon is justified in feeling both jarred and annoyed by what happened to her and neither should she have to put up with it. It’s also important to remember that the opinions voiced by a show’s star are their own and are not necessarily shared by their fellow actors.

Big stars working as part of a company on stage may have the greatest role to play in all this: their ability to attract new audiences and encourage them to participate and engage in this gloriously collective experience is influential.

It’s a good and necessary thing for the theatre industry. Equally, as in any community, respect and courtesy need to be shown towards each other, ensuring the experience shared by audiences and cast members alike is considerate and enjoyable for all.

Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan

Hayley Tamaddon: WTF? It’s never acceptable for audiences to verbally abuse the performers

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