I’m going in the wayback machine for today’s post. As many of you know, I’m a fan of live theatre. Huge fan, in fact. And willing participant.
I’m proud to be able to share that joy with Little Danger, who, at the age of 3, has managed to watch Hamlet in its entirety. He was well behaved and quiet, asking in a whisper occasionally “Why he sad?” or things like that. He’s also enjoyed 4 viewings of Jesus Christ Superstar, because Wifefish is AWESOME and kicked ass as Mary Magdelene. He was similarly spectacular at each show, saving his singing for the car ride home. (He does a fairly good rendition of “What’s the Buzz.”)
Today, I read an interesting and somewhat frightful article regarding the decline of the American Audience in theatre. Between Shia Lebouf getting booted for being a butthead and various cellphone infractions galore on Broadway, it appears that audiences just can’t be bothered to politely pay attention. It’s like theatre has caught a bad case of the assholes, which is a rash that can inhabit the house.
I was part of such an audience once, and it was not fun. But oh, was it memorable.
In 1990, (I know, way back machine) I was a junior in high school. Our English class would occasionally take trips to the Repertory Theatre of St Louis, aka “The Rep”, to take in a play. Thus it was that we went to see Fences, a fairly impressive production.
As luck would have it, this production had a guest star. I (and my classmates, of course) had a front row seat for a hell of a performance by none other than Avery Brooks, who had been playing Hawk on television, and would of course go on to play Captain Sisko on Deep Space Nine.
If you’ve seen the interview he did with Shatner, and you’ve wondered what made Avery Brooks go insane, wonder no more. It was the audience that day that cracked his sanity; I’m sure of it. The experience lay in his mind like ticking time bomb, triggering an aneurism in later years as I imagine he recalled the scene over and over until only the piano could save him.
The play itself was good, the actors quite talented. The set was AMAZEBALLS, including a kitchen just inside the door of the house façade that had running water. Talk about your practicals! A working kitchen faucet!
I’ll assume you’re not familiar with the play itself, so here’s your synopsis. I’ll wait for you to come back.
Back? Awesome. As you can see, that was some heavy subject matter for a high school class, but really, just a great show. Unfortunately, the day we attended was also a day in which the hosting college had sent many of their own students for extra credit. To say they misbehaved would be an understatement of epic proportions. It’s like saying Hulk has anger issues.
I was largely focused on the stage, and missed a great deal of the inappropriate stuff. In discussions on the bus ride home, others recalled a plethora of audience problems. Candy wrapper opening, mumbling, discussing, snoring. (Granted, that last one I’d nearly been guilty of my own self in a production of Henry IV in that very house. My teacher forgave me for it, saying it bored her, too.)
But I remember clearly the fight between father and son, Avery’s character Troy going after Cory with a baseball bat in some very convincing combat choreagraphy, and how the audience wasn’t, as I was, horrified at the prospect. Instead they howled with glee. Someone in the back yelled “get that motherfucker.” Candy was thrown on the stage. Reflect on that for a moment. Someone attending an institute of higher learning decided that part of their extra credit included throwing candy at a live cast in one of the premier theatres of the city. Acute case of the assholes.
At show’s end, it was obvious that the cast was as happy as a seal at a polar bear reunion. The curtain call was terse, short, and perfunctory. Each actor wore a frown, scowl, or other dour demeanor, clearly pissed off at having wasted a damn good performance on such an unappreciative bunch. (It bears mentioning that not one single member of our class had participated in any of these shenanigans.)
"Who raised these kids?"
Most of the cast left the stage, whilst most of the audience started to get up and go their merry way. Avery stood center stage and just watched. After what could only be called a dramatic pause, he spoke. He used what was then the “Hawk voice” and would become the “Sisko’s pissed basso profundi.” Two words, bouncing off the sound clouds as if spoken through a loudspeaker.
It garnered an amazing response. Everyone sat their ass down, responding to the commanding tone as if he’d been holding the nickel-plated .357 he held every week on our TVs. Playing a hitman can command a bit of respect.
After a scant few moments to let everyone sit, he began his lecture. Worthy of a professor of theatre, he launched on a diatribe that had even those of us who’d done nothing wrong slinking down in our seats. He wielded shame like a bludgeon, at one point walking stage right, plucking a twizzler off the floor, and bellowing “THIS has no PLACE in the THEATRE.” It sounded something like this:
The audience that left was a vastly different audience than had arrived. The lecture seemed to penetrate most, and there was precious little shit talking as the students filed out. There was a great deal of silence.
It was a performance every bit as memorable as the production he’d just participated in, if not more so. It was a message most in the room absolutely needed to hear. And maybe, just maybe, it’s one I’d like to see him deliver anytime an audience gets a case of the assholes.