Audience behaviour in Berlin (Theatertreffen anecdote 01)

(Witnessed during the Münchner Kammerspiele marathon performance of Sarah Kane’s last three plays as a single, 3.5-hour long production.)

Those of you who know Sarah Kane’s Cleansed will be aware of the part, towards the climax, when Robin “thinks he has cracked the numbers”, and demonstrates by counting, with the help of an abacus, “thirty fifty-two sevens”. So he does in this production. Quite slowly (he is playing a man with mental disabilities). Agonisingly so, perhaps, even.

Now look what happens, at this venerated theatre festival, this apex of public taste.

The audience starts getting twitchy around fifteen. At twenty there are sprinkles of laughter. At twenty-nine, one person starts to loudly applaud. The actor stops. A non-insignificant part of the audience takes up the clapping, very clearly intended to stop the counting. The applause subsides, the counting continues. At fifty, he actor pauses, and a man shouts: “Now backwards!” Laughter. The actor continues to count. These are dolled up people paying mighty Euros to be there, keep note. At fifteen or so, someone new shouts: “Fifty-one!” Pause, continue. Somewhere past twenty-five, the audience is already quite fidgety in unison, there’s another shout: “Yes, we get it!” Two separate couples are walking out at this point. Fortunately, the second series is the last. The counting only goes until thirty fifty-two sevens.

At the end of the evening, the performers get a selectively standing ovation, and are called back about seven times. Now, would you say they had any reason to worry that this was just out of politeness?


There was recently some writing on theatre etiquette, one good one from Alison C at Theatre Notes, one from Mr Peter West in The Age.

The summary of Peter West’s article is: taking photos in the opera is outrageous; as is anything but being terribly, terribly quiet (but the latter rule is unenforceable, due to the ongoing downfall of our civilisation). Ms Theatre Notes is much more humorous, less classist and more to-the-point (my favourite: “if you have to fall asleep in the theatre, don’t snore”), but also generally advocates politeness, silence, and suffering in silence. E.g., “Even if everything that is happening on stage makes you shrivel with horror and/or boredom, refrain from expressing your outrage and disappointment out loud until the show is finished. Unless, that is, you are invited by the performers to do so, in which case go right ahead.”

At the time, I thought my own guide to the theatre etiquette would consist of just about one sentence: remember that theatre is a social situation. Behave accordingly.

The main difference between this Berlin audience and, say, the Melbourne audience which might never walk out of a boring performance, but will check phones like nobody’s business, is not that one is rude and the other not (which one would be which, anyway?), but that one engages, and the other disengages from the social, communal nature of the encounter. It is a matter of culture, more than anything: Melburnians do more than one thing wilfully ignoring other people around them (throw house parties; drink on the street; drive mega-prams into mini-cafes); Germans, in contrast, will admonish you if you jaywalk because “you are a bad example to the children”.

The issue here is that theatre is a social situation by definition, by design, even in societies in which crossing the road isn’t. The beauty of theatre is in the feeling of community that is born in that enclosed, darkish, smallish space. And if a community can’t negotiate its rules without purchasing a guide book, something democratic in the nature of theatre is going to get severely compromised.

I have been refused entry for showing up late to the theatre (internationally). In Austria, I have been grabbed by my shoulder and pulled back when I leaned in on my seat because I was blocking the view of the person behind me. In Australia, I have shaken a snoring man to wake him up. In numerous places, I have stood up, and I have cheered peformers, because I was elated by performances. I have also refused to applaud, internationally. I have joined spontaneous applause in the middle of a performance (at MIAF 2011’s Aftermath). I have laughed outside of funny moments. I have sent SMS messages to the performers on stage. I have shouted directions. I have answered questions, and asked them, followed directions, refused to follow directions, given and received gifts, been blindfolded, danced, sung. I have walked out of numerous performances. Sometimes, when I found the performance particularly offensive to human civilisation, I made a big fuss out of walking out as noisily as I could (this has often involved David Williamson). At other times, when I felt the rest of the audience had every right to like what was on stage, I walked out quietly. I have booed shows. There have been a few times when I was unable to leave a show I detested, for technical reasons (once, for example, the seating was in very long rows, with the only exit to the far right, and me stuck to the far left): I have then read books during the performance, and also, more than once, filed my nails with particular disdain.

In Melbourne, having a spontaneously positive reaction to a work of theatre is as universally desirable (because it signifies abandon, participation, investment) as having a negative reaction is universally admonished. But walking out also signals abandon, participation, and investment. What made the German audience tonight so great to be amidst was that they were clearly familiar and comfortable with the agency they had in the situation. Not simply as ticket-payers, but as members of the society that has funded the theatre, the society that was supporting art. In the air, there was palpable, non-anxious freedom to engage. There is no way to disengage their vocal disapproval and boredom of Sarah Kane’s counting from the way in which they openly lecture a jaywalker. Both are moments of social interaction in which confrontation, discussion, disagreement are not outside the agreed bounds.

The theatre that I have enjoyed the most, that I have found the most successful overall, over the years, has been productions that understood this social aspect of the performance. And not merely as a possibility of gift-giving or gentleness or whatnot, not a possibility of a fruitful encounter (a HUGE amount of relational work falls into this do-goody trap), but as a willy-nilly social encounter. These productions played with it in different ways: by exploring boredom, disgust, flirtation and/or seduction of the viewer, tactility of the theatre, by sensorily stimulating, or antagonising the audience. But what made them successful, not simply intelligent, was the way in which they were able to allow a range of responses, not just one or two.

Jerome Bel’s work, for example, draws much of its strength from the way it simultaneously provokes, entertains, and leaves doors open for whatever the audience might want to bring to it. Ontroerend Goed are brilliant at revealing the exploitative edge to interactive performance in a way that feels like tough love. Rimini Protokoll’s shows draw much of their appeal on the non-standard interaction that an untrained performer can have with the audience, and from the reality of their shows. For different reasons, theatre with people with disabilities is powerful in that aspect as well. A Black Lung show would make no sense if there wasn’t that absence of final bow. The best performance of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children sat us around a table, and made the audience read the last, horrendous scene.

Much one-on-one, immersive or relational performance is explicitly arranged around the audience reaction. As is every kind of comedy, stand-up comedy in particular. Opera accommodates audience reactions with a generosity that is traditional, literally written into the score. Half of the fun of going to children’s theatre is in the intense reactions the shows elicit in small kids. And so on.

Yes, some shows invite interaction, and some don’t. But the difference, when you really think about it, is tiny. At its extreme, it is the difference between a host who relentlessly piles on offers of food and drink, and the host who invites you in and then pretends you’re not sitting in their kitchen, waiting for a cup of tea. Most theatre falls in between, waiting to give about as much as you will want to take. Like a house visit, it is a social encounter. It works the same way.

So, bullshit, I say. If you’re going to the theatre, you’re going there to engage with your society. If you want to engage by texting your friends throughout the show, hopefully someone will engage with you and kick you out/break your wrist/explain to you why that the appeal to turn your phone off was a rule painstakingly carved into our society for a reason. If you want to engage by demonstrating vocally whether you are enjoying or not, that is your right as citizen. If the show offends you, walk out, or stand up and argue. If the show touches you, stand up and applaud. This is exactly what theatre is meant to do. These are the moments we remember afterwards: not so much the powerful monologue, but the standing ovation it provoked, the spontaneous Bravo! Well said! (as happened when I saw Aftermath), the rotten fruit that flew, the moment everyone joined in with the song, the time when another audience member gave you a throat lozenge to calm your cough down. Hoi Polloi stopping their show fifteen minutes in, and starting again, for the sake of so many latecomers. The outrage when a member of Ontroerend Goes started making out with an audience member. The violent, demeaning moment of audience interaction I had at Not Like Beckett, at the Malthouse, 5 years ago (I have since forgotten everything about the show – but I will never forget the moment I was made to wank a rubber toy of a sort, with Russell Dykstra cackling: “Hah! You thought you were safe in the fourth row?!”). The impulse to go to the theatre is, in its core, social.


6 thoughts on “Audience behaviour in Berlin (Theatertreffen anecdote 01)

  1. Thanks Jana, that was fun. I remember seeing a performance of Cage’s 4’33” which got similarly anarchic. As for my squib, I think my serious point was that, as a social situation, it’s also worth considering other audience members too: it can be so annoying to have your concentration shattered by someone who simply can’t be bothered to pay attention. Though you also reminded me of the time Daniel dragged me out of the opera because I was standing up and booing. It all depends.

  2. Jane says:

    Love this piece. It made me realise so many of my strongest memories of theatre work is connected to my own physical responses to the works – either invited or not invited. A refusal to clap, a spontaneous yelling out of “No!” when someone was about to walk into a snow storm, a cleaning of my finger nails, an imitation of a tampon, melting ice, throwing green ping pong balls, noticing I’m not breathing, cheeks hurting from laughing too much, skipping through abandoned buildings, spilling coffee on myself, a laugh alone, a laugh in a group, struggling to not weep audibly, almost breaking the hand of a friend I was gripping so tightly …

  3. David Maney says:

    A delight, Jana. There are shows I’ve forgotten everything about bar your walk-out or nail-filing. I prefer the former over the latter, if only because doing your nails makes the tedium of the show that much harder to bear for the rest of us.

    One if my most memorable nights of theater was being called onto stage to play musical chairs with Nicola Gunn. After this she sat me down and asked me to hold a photo of her while she berated it — or her, or me — repeatedly calling it a cock-sucker.

    Your piece has come at the perfect moment. I’m off to a one-on-one show at the Arts House, tonight at 9pm. The rendezvous had been organized by SMS this afternoon and the “performance” length will depend on my level of engagement. I am, predictably, nervous.

    • Jana says:

      I agree (see below: omission/commission). I am also hugely annoyed by nail-filing. It’s a passive-aggressive response (and there is no joy in passive aggression) very much fueled by a sense of external constraint, either physical or psychological obstacles to walking out. Something like, “you think walking out is bad, huh?! I’ll show you bad behaviour!”

      The lesson of last night, for me, was that there is a great sense of joy and liberation in open outrage, even rudeness, and that it probably does not disturb the bystanders much; probably the opposite, actually. But the most difficult part to describe or explain is the most tactile: the feeling of freedom that overcomes you when you are in an audience prepared to have a discussion with the piece as it is occurring. The realization that this power, this agency, was always there, but you never took it. The problem with stressing politeness is that politeness is often an enormously passive-aggressive attitude.

  4. Jana says:

    Hello, Jane! So lovely to have you here!

    Alison – I had that image of you booing opera very much in mind when I was organizing my thoughts about audience. I, of course, don’t remember any other thing from the story, but it is one of my favourite stories about you, and one of the most vivid. In fact, I was a bit surprised that you didn’t mention it in your etiquette piece.

    There are audience sins of commission and omission, and I think the former are simply less annoying, because more appropriate to the situation. A person loudly booing, or attempting to stop a performance with applause, is actively involved in the theatre situation, and is much less quietly annoying than the person checking one’s phone, or loudly chewing. But, equally, the person who turns around towards the smartphone-user and hisses a loud “Shhh!” is much less annoying than the one who gives them offended looks and thinks downfall-of-civilization thoughts for the duration of the show. And then tells the story to everyone later. Or rather, complains – because there is no story to tell. There has been no engagement.

  5. Richard says:

    More than your average note on theatre etiquitte.

    Sounds like an amazing situation. Kudos to director, actor, and audience.

    I worry that Aus audiences don’t enjoy theatre enough. They see pleasure as lying back and getting entertained, they don’t see pleasure as being something you have to seek, to work for. Is it possible to have a parochial attitude to pleasure?

    The Germans seem determined to anjoy the act of theatre, no matter the form or the level of quality. You have to appreciate that, it gives theatre a life beyond the marketplace, and makes the playhouses more than the emotional brothels in Aus. It opens up new possibilities.

    Here’s a video of Mike Daisey being walked out on mid-performance. It’s interesting how he responds. And the way he looks at the guy who pours water on his notes.

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