Audiences Behaving Badly – And What We Should Do About It (Dr Kirsty Sedgman's Theatre & Touring Symposium 2019 Lightning Talk)

Audiences Behaving Badly – And What We Should Do About It (Dr Kirsty Sedgman's Theatre & Touring Symposium 2019 Lightning Talk)

Dr Kirsty Sedgman 055_TTSYMP 19_Pamela Raith Photography.jpg
Dr Kirsty Sedgman on stage at the Theatre & Touring Symposium 2019. Photo: Pamela Raith Photography
Date Published: 26 June 2019

Dr Kirsty Sedgman is a Lecturer in Theatre and British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Bristol. On 17 June 2019 she gave a 'lightning talk' at the Theatre and Touring Symposium 2019. This is a blog post about that talk:

As theatre-makers and cultural venues, how can you make sure that all audiences are given the chance to experience live performance safely, equally, and enjoyably? From spectators getting drunk and rowdy, to coughing their way through a performance, to having a sing-along to beloved show tunes – when do we need to intervene in theatrical disturbances, and when should we relax our rules?

These were the questions I asked in my talk at the Theatre & Touring Symposium 2019 – a ten-minute sprint through some of the main findings from my book, The Reasonable Audience, published by Palgrave Macmillan last year. Subtitled Theatre Etiquette, Behaviour Policing, and the Live Performance Experience, this book examines the core of power involved in judging the behaviour of others. What does it mean to believe a particular (silent, reverent, focused) mode of behaviour is reasonable, and therefore deserves to be prioritised over alternative kinds of response?

My book connects the correspondence between the rise of the term “theatre etiquette” in the 2000s to the emergence of widening participation initiatives designed to increase theatre’s appeal by transforming its elitist image. Jukebox shows and celebrity casting may have enabled venues to sell events as a fun night out – but when audiences enter the auditorium, they are immediately reminded that their own idea of fun may be incompatible with theatre’s behavioural rules. No dancing in the aisles! No singing along! It’s a musical, not a music concert! Enjoy yourself, but by our standards – not yours! The result has been a seemingly endless onslaught of think-pieces from ‘traditional’ theatregoers – whom we know from a plethora of data to be overwhelmingly older, white, and economically privileged – about how audiences are becoming increasingly selfish, disrespectful, and rude.

The thing is, though, that manners and respect are not neutral. There is a real core of power in assuming that your particular version of respect is the reasonable one, and that contrasting needs and preferences are unreasonable. First, and perhaps most oft-discussed – throwing around accusations of selfishness is to ignore the potential for hidden, potentially-legitimate exceptions. Think for instance about:

  • the spectator who keeps their phone on because it’s the only way they feel comfortable attending at all (e.g. doctors on call, worried parents, people with hypoglycaemia using technology to track their blood-sugar levels). Should they be told to suck it up and keep their phone off, or else stay at home?
  • the chronically-ill spectator, whose persistent cough isn’t a temporary cold but symptomatic of an ongoing medical condition – or the neurodivergent audience member, like Touretteshero campaigner Jess Thom, asked to sit apart from the audience because of her tics. Does their right to be part of a communal experience outweigh others’ desire not to be disturbed by involuntary vocalisations?

These examples go some way to explaining why I called my book ‘The Reasonable Audience’. The concept of reasonableness is embedded in Western law, with the ‘reasonable man’ supposedly an objective, unbiased viewpoint. Actually, though, as scholars in critical race and disability studies have demonstrated, the reasonable person construct is entirely steeped in social bias. Hence when, in theatres, decisions about which precise accommodations are ‘reasonable’ are often made according to able-bodied, neurotypical perspectives – yet those decisions and policies are often demonstrably unreasonable within the context of disabled people’s lived experiences. What seems like a sensible (temporary) measure for the greater good can actually lead to inequitable (permanent) exclusions: a problem that Jess Thom’s ‘extra live’ relaxed performances are brilliantly beginning to challenge.

Second, we must also understand how these ideals of manners and respect land differently on different subjectivities, even when their bodies are capable of following the constraints of abled norms. In short: it tends to be working-class audiences, young audiences, and audiences of colour (especially when those identities overlap) who are most vulnerable to accusations of disrespect – even if their behaviour is exactly the same as the posh older white person next to them. And third, even when the show itself invites a more sociably exuberant call-and-response, some (hashtag-NotAll) ‘traditional’ audiences still demand silence from those around them. Both these factors are addressed in Dominique Morisseau’s important 2015 American Theatre article, which recalls the time “at a prestigious theatre festival when black women were responding exactly how I want them to respond to my play—loudly and expressively and ‘ummm hmm’-ing— and an older white patron approached them at intermission and said: ‘Can you enjoy the play a little quieter, please?’”. This policing of enthusiasm has real-world consequences: following a recent Twitter thread I wrote about this, so many people got in touch to tell me about the times they were shhh-ed, policed, made to feel unwelcome, and even ejected in tears vowing never to come back.

So what’s my conclusion? First of all, before you jump online to tell me off, nobody is saying we should stop distinguishing between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. Of course we need policies in place to protect performers, staff, and other audiences from people who are rowdy or drunk or violent! Nor am I suggesting that marginalised audiences are less able to perform spectatorship according to dominant ideals of respect(ability), or ignoring the very real pleasures of undisturbed spectatorship (all this is in my book, of course). But.

But at the same time, we also need to think really critically about 1) where that line between good and bad behaviour is drawn, 2) how its location is determined, and 3) who gets to define, maintain, and police its boundaries – and who is much more likely to be policed. If your venue has rules, who set them? Who do they privilege, and whom do they disadvantage? Whose pleasures are being prioritised, and whose get rendered unreasonable? When dealing with outbreaks of inter-audience disputes, there’s a need to train front-of-house staff to mediate carefully between that ‘traditional’ theatregoer – whose desire to enforce propriety may actually have been extremely rude – and those who are not white, abled, older, and/or upper-middle-class. We need to embed into our policies the recognition that being quiet and sitting down is not the only way to pay attention, and that leaping to problem/solution conclusions can be a form of violence underpinned by social bias. After all, this mode of silent spectatorial reception is still relatively very recent, designed in the 19th century specifically to exclude the newly-constituted masses from the ‘elite’ few deemed capable of ‘civilised’ aesthetic response. Meanwhile, those working-class communities and cultures whom theatre has historically marginalised may be coming to the theatre with alternative ways of having fun and paying respect – and we need to get better at respecting their enjoyment, too.

Dr Kirsty Sedgman 053_TTSYMP 19_Pamela Raith Photography.jpg
Dr Kirsty Sedgman gives her 'lightning talk' to delegates at the Theatre & Touring Symposium 2019. Photo: Pamela Raith Photography
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