Theater Around The Bay: Audiences Aren’t Getting Better, We Are Just Becoming More Tolerant

Former Bay Area actor Travis Howse, now tearing it up on NYC stages, sends us his observations about today’s theater audience.

Today I witnessed the worst audience I have seen since middle school. That isn’t saying that my middle school audience experience was awful, but my middle school audience experience was the first audience experience I remember. So I guess you could say that this is the worst audience I’ve ever seen. Oh, and it was on Broadway.

Tonight we saw “Motown, The Musical” at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on 46th Street. This is a show that has been running for around a year now, and has just begun to go on tour, where I am sure it will be wildly successful. This show, and I promise that I am not saying this as a bad thing, is designed to make money and to draw big audiences, which it does, eight shows a week. People are drawn to it because they know the music and the names of the characters already. It’s an easy show to see, especially for people new to theatre or from out of town. I hope you know what kind of show I’m talking about, because it will be important later.

After the lights had gone down, the announcement was made to shut off your phones, and the music had begun to play, I noticed that there was a large chunk of the center section near us missing. There was no one there. Which I thought was odd, seeing as the box office had told us we had two of the last six tickets for that performance. It was two minutes into the opening number when I saw where the remainder of the audience was; shuffling up the aisle to take their seats. Late, loud and confused, at least forty people pulled out phones for light and searched all around them for the right aisle and seat, assisted by ushers who seemed to be just as confused. A process which took all of the first number and then some to finally fix. If you’ve ever seen the show, please let me know how the opening was, because I didn’t see any of it.

Over the next 20 minutes more people filed in late, guided by ushers who were waving flashlights and moving entire aisles over so that people could get to exactly the right seat. In the first act alone I saw four cell phones out while people were texting during the show. I saw one person check her instagram. Twice. People kept talking, not whispering, but talking all around us. I could have pointed out to you which seats had candy because of all the noise from boxes and wrappers crinkling every five seconds. And finally, before the cast could take their bows and sing the final number, ten people (I counted) stood up and left the theatre as quickly as they could. That last one may just bother me because I’m an actor, but it really, really, REALLY bothers me.

While all of these actions are unarguably considered rude to your fellow audience members, they even go as far as to be completely disrespectful of the performers and artists who have worked so hard to bring that show to life. I have never seen an audience collectively show such a disregard for their fellow theatre-goers or to the artists, performers and technicians who are all working to produce a good show.
During the entire performance, I was doing either one of two things. I was either listening to the amazing music and thinking “man, that guy does a killer Marvin Gaye”, or I was silently and furiously trying to rationalize what I was witnessing from this audience. I didn’t find my answer until the show was over and I was in the lobby.

In the upstairs lobby of that theater, there is a large bar right in the center, with two merchandise carts on either side. You can buy a $15 jack and coke, a $5 packet of skittles, or one of the limited edition “Motown The Musical” baseball tees for $45. Want a CD? They’ve got one for you. How about a hoodie? They’ve got three colors in your size. What about a poster? Sure! Only $25 for this colored piece of paper!! Buy two!!! The cheapest ticket to this show (not the lottery price) is around $60, with the average ticket price being just under $100. This isn’t theatre to most of these people; it’s Disneyland.

We, as a society, have been taught to think that our money guarantees us the right to do just about anything we want to. This idea is reinforced time and time again by companies who are willing to debase and humiliate their employees in favor of an avid yelper. The phrase “the customer is always right” has become the ultimate commandment in our consumer culture, and it has taught people to be more demanding, less considerate, and sometimes just plain mean. And it has begun to spill into the theatre, starting on Broadway.

Broadway is a pretty necessary evil. On one hand, it is providing a large number of jobs to artists (people like me) who need the work. It allows theatre companies to fund important projects, commission new pieces, and pay it’s artists. It also introduces countless numbers of people to theatre for the first time, and in recent years has even made a herculean effort to make it’s shows more affordable to students, seniors and young professionals who wouldn’t be able to attend otherwise. It is even home to incredible shows that I count myself beyond lucky to have been able to see. I love that about the Great White Way.

But there is Broadway’s other hand. The hand that charges most people triple digits to see a show. The hand that will only allow a new play to go up if it is first stacked with non-stage actors or other unequipped celebrities with name recognition. The hand that sells t-shirts with a logo on them. The hand that charges $12 for a beer. The hand that lets beer go into the theatre! The hand that allows patrons to treat each performance like an on demand movie. The hand that allowed an audience to behave like the one I saw tonight. It has been Broadway’s Bad Hand that has allowed audiences to treat it this way, and it kills me to see my beloved theatre in such an abusive relationship.

I have spent most of the evening thinking of ways to fix what I have seen, not just tonight, but in many audiences on Broadway and beyond. My solutions have ranged from not seating late comers, to actually throwing out patrons who break the rules on the first offense; from turning ushers into police, to having a three minute introduction speech about proper theatre etiquette. But it wasn’t until I began writing this paragraph that the most depressing questions came to my mind: When did it get this bad? And can we go back?