It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Attendance is Surrender

Dave Sikula will not surrender!

At the end of our last meeting, I mentioned that I’d run out of time and didn’t have the space (or the energy, really) to discuss two other topics I’d wanted to mention.

The second was “the tacit contract an audience enters into by purchasing tickets.” (I’ll deal with this one first, then move on to the first one.)

A couple of weeks ago, I was re-reading Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review of the “Tower Heist” movie. In spite of my reputation for not liking anything – which is totally unwarranted, by the way – I sort of enjoyed “Tower Heist,” which was a little surprising. I usually find Ben Stiller pretty repellent, but he was innocuous enough in this one. (Side note: When Stiller had his footprints immortalized at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre this week, it was the death knell of that venerable tradition; not even the ceremony celebrating Rodney Dangerfield sank that low.) Of course, considering there are three movie genres I am an absolute sucker for: heists and capers, newspaper pictures, and movies where things get blowed up real good,” my tepid endorsement of this one owed more to its genre than its quality.

Anyway, at one point in his review, Lane discusses an audience’s role when attending a performance. Even though Lane is referring specifically to film audiences, I think there are things that apply to spectators attending plays:

There’s only one problem with home cinema: it doesn’t exist. The very phrase is an oxymoron. As you pause your film to answer the door or fetch a Coke, the experience ceases to be cinema. Even the act of choosing when to watch means you are no longer at the movies. Choice — preferably an exhaustive menu of it — pretty much defines our status as consumers, and has long been an unquestioned tenet of the capitalist feast, but in fact carte blanche is no way to run a cultural life (or any kind of life, for that matter), and one thing that has nourished the theatrical experience, from the Athens of Aeschylus to the multiplex, is the element of compulsion. Someone else decides when the show will start; we may decide whether to attend, but, once we take our seats, we join the ride and surrender our will. The same goes for the folks around us, whom we do not know, and whom we resemble only in our private desire to know more of what will unfold in public, on the stage or screen. We are strangers in communion, and, once that pact of the intimate and the populous is snapped, the charm is gone. Our revels now are ended.

To deal with the specifics here, I’m old enough to remember when moviegoing was, if not an event, a bigger deal than it is now. There were first-run and second-run theatres (and, in larger cities, revival houses to screen really old pictures — Los Angeles, where I grew up had seven or eight really good ones). The first-run theatres were huge palaces with reserved seats, and ushers, and elaborate restrooms. There were even private rooms that were ventilated for smokers and soundproofed for crying babies. (Years ago, I went on a tour of the movie palace district in downtown L.A. and saw one of them that had a crying room in the basement that had an elaborate periscope system that showed the movie.) For big “road show” features, you’d clip a coupon in the newspaper and send off for tickets for some unspecified date in the future. Just as with buying theatre tickets, even though you could always try for seats on the spur of the moment, you’d know weeks — or even months — in advance when and where you were going to the movies. (And, unless it was a really big movie, you’d probably be going to a double feature. You could arrive any time, walk in in the middle of the movie, stay to the end of that one, watch the cartoon and trailers, see the other movie, and watch as much of it as you’d missed; hence, the old expression “This is where we came in.”) Obviously, in those days, there were no cell phones or other electronic devices to distract audiences from watching the movie. The social contract called for sitting quietly and paying attention. The expected behavior wasn’t mandated on the ticket; you were trained by your parents and peers in how to behave (and if you didn’t, the ushers would take matters into their own hands).

That was how you saw movies in those days. What movies were on television were usually late at night or big deals. (For years, people wrote TV Guide asking why “Gone with the Wind” had never been on TV. “The Wizard of Oz” showed once a year, usually around Easter. Everything else was old and in black and white.) If you wanted to see a movie, it was like going to a play; you had to get up out of the house and go to a theatre.

Until I read that “Tower Heist” review, though, I’d never thought of how much we surrender when we buy a ticket to a play or a movie. There’s a song in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “Me and Juliet” (one of their few flops) that calls an audience a “big black giant” that must be tamed. I think there’s something in that. When we go to a show, we tacitly agree to give up our individuality and autonomy. Things don’t run on our schedule; we agree to rearrange our lives to show up at a specified place at a pre-arranged time. We agree to sit where we’re told, among a group of strangers who have also been told to show up at the same time and sit where they’ve been told, in order to watch a group of actors — who have also, come to think of it, been told when to show up and where to go — tell us a story.

Except in very rare cases, we don’t have any choice in the way the story is to be told, how long it will take, or anything else. We’ve paid for the privilege of giving up a series of personal choices; to be ordered around and told what to do; to regulate our behavior to social norms — or, at least, to moderate and adapt them to the level appropriate to what is presented to us (I used to work with a guy who never understood why audiences applaud at the end of a number in a musical. I’ve never gone to a musical since without thinking of him and wondering just why it is we do applaud [long-time readers will remember my other questions about applause].) You wouldn’t behave the same way at a rock concert as you do at a classical concert; you wouldn’t behave the same at a classical concert as you do at a broad comedy; you wouldn’t behave at a broad comedy the same as you would at show produced at a bar. At each of these performances (all of which we, yes, agree to attend at specified and pre-arranged times) have their own codes of behavior, with which we tacitly agree to comply. We’re so used to the idea that we probably don’t even think about it anymore; we don’t plan in advance how we’ll behave. We just know when we’re there what the proper etiquette is.

I don’t know that I have a point here, ultimately. I just got to thinking about how much we agree to forego and modify in ourselves when we make the choice to attend a performance. I have a feeling it’ll be something I think about in the future, though.

It’s especially relevant to me now. I’m working on an environmental piece — “Speakeasy,” from Boxcar Theatre — that is intended to replicate an evening in a speakeasy in 1923. There are a number of areas in the space — a bar, a dressing room, an office, a casino, even a nightclub — and scenes will be taking place all over the building simultaneously; often in the same rooms. Audiences can follow characters and their storylines around or get a taste of numerous stories. They can even ignore the actors altogether and just drink and gamble. But, being as this is a unique experience, we actors have no idea how the audiences are going to react. Are they going to watch us from a table or stand next to us? Will they try to interact with us? (I hope not; I hate improving in character like that.) Will they answer us back? Comment on the action? Try to applaud? Sit silently? I have no idea — and I expect they won’t, either. We’re trained to react to certain forms of entertainment in certain ways, but there’s no instruction manual for this one. The audiences have agreed to show up at a certain (secret) location at a certain time, but beyond that, they don’t know what to expect. They’ll have to constantly recalibrate their reactions — and that’s not a bad thing. It’ll do them — and us — good to go in not knowing what will happen. As passive as the audience experience is, it’ll be interesting to have to do a little work while watching and listening.

At least I hope so …

And I still haven’t dealt with my first talking point: artistic depictions of the creative process. Guess that’ll have to wait until next time.

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One comment on “It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Attendance is Surrender

  1. I’m old enough to remember the “event” of watching The Wizard of Oz and Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer. (Events too because I wasn’t normally allowed to watch TV.) And I remember the night our high school play was on the same night that the world found out “who shot J.R.” and my drama teacher thanked everyone for coming despite that. I miss things being seasonal. So every year I only listen to Handel’s Messiah, my favorite choral piece, after Thanksgiving and through New Year’s. Makes it more special.

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