School matinees get a bad rap. After all, if distracted audiences are frustrating, imagine a theatre filled with teens gossiping, quarrelling, texting, and so on, while in the meantime an acting company tries to sustain its performance of a Shakespeare play as if it were simply another show.
Truth be told, student matinees can be exhilarating. Provided the show on offer is sufficiently compelling, students can be every bit as attentive as adult audiences to a story well told. But they are often more joyously demonstrative – laughing heartily, shouting out encouragement, expressing their appreciation or their dismay as the story demands.
Having been won over by the energy student matinees generate long ago, I found it particularly enlightening to experience what can only be referred to as a student matinee on steroids: last week’s performance of the Broadway play To Kill a Mockingbird for an audience of 18,000 school students (and their teachers and chaperones) at Madison Square Garden.
Responses were super-sized, as this concert venue and sports mecca became home for a Broadway production for the first time.
Director Bartlett Sher and the Mockingbird team had cleverly rethought how to take a multi-set proscenium show and place it on a floor more typically used for hockey and basketball games. An elongated stage was set up on the floor with the various locales – the Finch family’s front porch, a jail cell (later turned into a bedroom), the courtroom, a main street in Maycomb, Alabama – arrayed along it.
Devoid of walls, the spaces were defined only by bits of furniture, but it was always clear where the characters were, where we were. The staging solution may have even added to the proceedings, as it forced some characters to take long promenades to get from one location to another – some with the speed of youth, others with the weight of justice denied.
The vastness of the space required that every actor be miked up; even the strongest projection of the voice could not compete with a space in which acoustics were never a concern. But MSG offered an unexpected benefit: if students were distracted and chatty, their conversations were diminished by scale except to those in their immediate vicinity.
Contrary to the instinct to be annoyed when a nearby patron gets vocal during a show, it was great fun to hear teens around me responding to the play, practically hissing the villains and getting increasingly angry at the characters who spat out racial slurs.
When the young heroes of the story enjoyed small triumphs, it was as if they had just won a big game. Yes, that’s present at any student matinee, but when 18,000 bodies murmur their upset at once, it becomes a rumble. When they cheer in satisfaction, it is a hurricane.
When the special event was first announced, naysayers on social media wondered (to put it politely) how it could possibly work. From a seat admittedly close to the floor and the action, it worked quite well. The experience wasn’t the same as seeing it in a theatre (and Mockingbird has offered performances at its regular home – a 12th of the size – for student audiences previously), but it was a galvanising opportunity for so many at once.
When 18,000 bodies murmur their upset at once, it becomes a rumble. When they cheer in satisfaction, it is a hurricane
My only small caveat? I can’t speak for the kids, but I wish the concession stands had been open, as I would have liked to have had a soda and hot dog with my drama. That’s unthinkable in a Broadway house – at least the hot dog is.
The Mockingbird performance is unlikely to generate many more of its kind; no doubt the expense was significant. While MSG head James Dolan donated the venue and producers Scott Rudin and Barry Diller and colleagues picked up the rest of the tab, it’s a particularly heavy undertaking.
Not every show can achieve its full effect as Mockingbird could by creating a huge theatre in the round. A show with big effects, or choreography geared for a proscenium, would require vast reworking and might be diminished in the effort. A more intimate show would be lost, as was the case three years ago when Kevin Spacey performed the one-man Clarence Darrow at the National Tennis Center.
Even if Mockingbird proves to have been a one-off, and one hopes that it wasn’t, the attention it generated was a reminder to those outside the hall exactly how powerful, entertaining, engaging and – dare I say it – educational theatre can be.
We may not often get shows on the same surface where, on other days, ice resurfacers roam and Lady Gaga holds court, so the industry must look to itself to ensure other creative ways to bring students into theatres – and to bring theatre to students in ways that aren’t necessarily wedded to conventional presentation.
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/