It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: Starting Over

Dave Sikula would never fall asleep at your show.

I’ll be honest with you. I just abandoned another post when I realized, 500+ words in, that it just wasn’t working. If nothing else, I was in danger of saying some things that could easily be misunderstood and give too many wrong impressions.

So I decided to deal with something less controversial: namely, what the hell is wrong with audiences these days?

As an actor, I’m used to working with audiences that are up close and personal. My high school’s theatre was in the round, and the seats were thisclose to the stage, so I had early training in being aware of the audience while ignoring them. I mean, I’m always aware of them and their reactions, but I’m not concentrating on them. This has especially helpful in the last few shows I’ve done, that have either been on thrust stages or in interactive spaces. Believe me, we see everything, but learn to ignore it.

The musical I’ve been doing has been extremely (and rightfully) popular, and we’ve had only a few empty seats the entire run. One of my favorite parts of this show is my big number in the second act. I get to sing right to the audience and get in their faces in a positive way. And every night, I’m able to take inventory of who’s still with us, who’s checked out, and who’s asleep. (Literally.) One of the good things about the show is that we’ve gotten a wide variety of types of people. Having a number of different types in the audience pretty much guarantees that there’ll be plenty of varying reactions. Everyone is going to react to the show differently. I’ve found that I don’t like playing before large groups that have come to the show together (benefits are particularly bad in this regard). They’re all of the same mind, so if one of them finds something entertaining or funny, they all will, and will all react in the same way. That’s fine when they like a show, but when they don’t, it’s deadly. You can be doing everything right and well, and they just sit there like an oil painting. Take our last performance. We had a group of college students who couldn’t have been less interested in watching the show. They were dutiful, they applauded, took notes, and stayed until the end, but they were there only because they were supposed to be. Now, please note: I don’t fault them for being uninterested. Not everyone likes every show. (Goodness knows I’ve seen plenty I didn’t like.)

Not quite this bad - but almost.

Not quite this bad – but almost.

What I can’t understand is why someone would either go to a show they really had no interest in seeing or why they’d stay. Well, I know in one sense; it’s something that my wife and I have dubbed “Obligation Theatre.” In most cases, I want to see something or I won’t make the effort to buy a ticket and leave the house. But, every so often, someone I know is doing a show, and despite my worst fears and expectations (“They’re/he/she doing that? ), I go and endure a couple hours of pain because I want to support a friend, even in the most perfunctory sense.

But, that aside, every actor has stories about audience members who misbehaved. Just tonight, in addition to the dullards at my own show, I heard reports from another show about audience members who used the set as a place to set their bags, who went into the lobby during the show to complain to the cast about the temperature in the theatre, then stood in their way when they were trying to make their entrances and a couple that argued in the parking lot at intermission because the husband had fallen asleep during the first act. (They left.) During our production, we’ve had a number of sleepers, and at least one woman who thought the emotional 11 o’clock number was the perfect time to check her phone, and another who was in such a rush to leave, she ran smack into one of the actors trying to make her curtain call. (And don’t even get me started on the audience members who use the curtain call as the perfect opportunity to rush out of the theatre as though the joint was on fire. Are they really going to save that much time?)

We’ve probably all dealt with cell phones going off or talkers or singers-along or eaters or texters or latecomers or the deathly ill, but I can’t imagine how these people have been so sheltered that they don’t comprehend that they can be heard or seen or smelled or detected; that they’ve developed some kind of force field of invisibility that prevents anyone else in the audience or cast from detecting them.

An actor I once worked with had worked with another actor in the West End who had a unique way of dealing with latecomers, especially those who were down front. He’d stop the show, welcome them, make sure that they had programs and knew who everyone on stage was and what had happened thus far. Once he was sure they were well-informed, he’d ask for permission to start again. One can be pretty sure that these folks were never late for the theatre again. Similarly, in the days when people had to use cameras, rather than phones, to take photos at shows, when Katharine Hepburn would spot one of them, she’d stop the show, walk downstage, demand that the photographer stand and take all the photos he or she wanted because their needs were more important than those of anyone else in the theatre. When she was satisfied that the person had had their fill, she resumed the show. Laurence Fishburne once stopped a performance of The Lion in Winter when a phone went off. He stopped, looked at the audience with a lethal stare, and intoned “Tell them we’re busy.” I once saw Christopher Walken halt a cross from stage left to right when another phone went off. He stared at the audience in a Walkenesque way, with a look on his face that indicated his character couldn’t tell if he was hearing things or something was actually happening. When the phone stopped, he kind of shrugged and resumed the cross. Dennis O’Hare, in Take Me Out, was in the middle of a monologue when someone in the audience sneezed. Without missing a beat, he said “Bless you” and continued the speech. And we all know how Patti LuPone reacted to a photographer.

Don’t screw with Patti.

While all of those responses are admirable to me, anyway), in almost every case when I’ve had to deal with a moment like these, I’ve made the choice to just ignore the interruption or sleeper or noise or smell, and I have to wonder why. We all know it’s happening, it’s disruptive and annoying, but we all suspend our disbelief and pretend it’s not happening or it’ll stop eventually.

I guess it’s just the easy way out or that we want to avoid confrontation or that it’s not worth the effort to break the illusion.

As I said at the beginning, this was a substitute for another post, so I’m not sure what my ultimate point is other than to complain and urge all of us – myself included – to stay awake, alert, and involved when we go see a show. Even the worst of shows has some value, even if only as an example of how bad something can be. If I could make it through The Lily’s Revenge without throttling someone, there’s nothing that can’t be endured.

Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: Like A Wedding

Marissa Skudlarek continues to check in regarding her mad-cap life in the arts, via our lucky, lucky, oh-so-lucky website. If you find yourself thinking, “Well, hey, I could do that too!” let us know! We’re looking for an alternate Thursday columnist to submit every two weeks for the days when Ms. Skudlarek is busy being brilliant elsewhere.

This past weekend, the inaugural Des Voix Festival hit San Francisco. Playwrights Foundation and the French Consulate sponsored this event, which featured staged readings of three plays by contemporary French playwrights, a colloquium on translation, and, as the Friday night kickoff, the “Bal Littéraire.”

A Bal Littéraire is difficult to describe and even to translate (the English-language promotional materials went for “new play nightclub” – better than “literary ball,” I suppose), but easy to enjoy, no matter what language you speak. French playwrights invented this format, and Friday’s Bal was the first to be held on another continent. To create a Bal Littéraire, a group of playwrights meet up and put together a playlist of fun, danceable songs. Then, they use that playlist to structure a work of theater: scenes and songs alternate, and the last line of each scene must be the title of the following song. The playwrights then divide up the work, write the scenes, and figure out how to perform it as a staged reading. At the Bal, the audience is instructed to listen attentively to each scene, then get up and dance like crazy when a song comes on.

As soon as I heard about the Bal Littéraire, I knew I had to attend. Theater, French, and dancing? Sign me up!

The Des Voix Festival’s three French playwrights collaborated with three Americans to create Friday’s Bal, putting together an appealing story about a French tourist in San Francisco. There were ten scenes and ten intervals for dancing – oh yes, we danced. It was a smashing success, and several American audience members expressed interest in hosting more of these. In case you want to experience the Bal Litteraire for yourself – and watch me dancing like a maniac to “Raspberry Beret” – it’s been filmed and archived on New Play TV (

At the party (the play?) I overheard someone say, “It’s like a wedding, when everyone gets up to dance.” I understood what she meant. Weddings are one of the few events in our society where everyone, all ages, dances together, as they did at the Bal.

This got me to think: if we want to encourage more fun participatory theater, maybe weddings can teach us something about how to accomplish this. As it happens, I ran into Jessica Holt at the Bal, and last year, Jessica was one of six directors of Taylor Mac’s four-hour extravaganza The Lily’s Revenge, at the Magic Theatre. The Lily’s Revenge is an allegory about marriage (a lily goes on a quest to become human so he can get married) and the play itself borrows structural elements from a wedding. At various points in the play, you eat and drink with your fellow audience members, you dance, you chat. The Lily’s Revenge is one of my all-time favorite theater experiences, partly for its smarts and partly for its immersiveness. And this isn’t the only play that taps into wedding-style aesthetics – on the opposite side of the cultural spectrum, isn’t Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding a long-running hit?

Weddings, like theater, bring people together for a common, celebratory purpose. They arose out of religious ritual, but, in a secular age, now seem more linked to fun and entertainment than to worship. Yet the best weddings and the best plays also evoke transcendent emotions within you.

Additionally, weddings and theater are great means of cross-cultural connection, letting us see past our differences and understand what is universal. If you attend a wedding from another cultural tradition, you may find some of the rituals strange, but you will recognize what lies behind the ritual: love, family, celebration.

Theater, too, is universal, because human behavior is universal. In the lobby after one of the Des Voix festival readings, the French playwrights appraised the American crowd and said that they might not understand everything that we were saying, but they understood our behavior. With their keen playwrights’ eyes, they could see the roles that each of us played in society, the flattery and the jockeying for position that is common to theater people the world over. It’s the same game, they said, “le même enjeu.”

My own moment of feeling a universal connection occurred when I learned that each of the playwrights in the festival comes from a different French city. Nathalie Fillion lives in Paris, while Marion Aubert is from Montpellier and Samuel Gallet is based in Lyon. And yet I had assumed that all of the playwrights were Parisian. There’s a stereotype that all French writers live in Paris – to a great extent, Paris dominates French cultural life, and Parisians tend to consider every other part of France “provincial.” So I had presumed that any aspiring French playwright would need to move to Paris in order to be successful. But here were two French writers from other cities.

Furthermore, I realized, just as there’s a stereotype that all French theater comes from Paris, there’s a stereotype that all American theater comes from New York. As a San Francisco artist, of course I find this New York-centric mentality irritating. I would be quite annoyed if I went to a foreign country and everyone assumed that because I do theater, I “must” be from New York. And Aubert and Gallet probably feel the same way when Americans assume that they “must” live in Paris.

I was ashamed of my ignorance, ashamed to have fallen prey to the oh-so-typical American assumption that France equals Paris. Yet I also felt even more honored to meet Aubert and Gallet when I realized that, like me, they were theater artists who do not live in their country’s largest city.

In my best French, I attempted to explain this to the playwrights, suggesting that maybe the way they feel about Paris is the way I feel about New York. I said that I love making art in San Francisco, and don’t want to leave, but some people would suggest that I should move to New York if I was really serious about my career.

“So, you are a playwright, here, in San Francisco?” Aubert asked me.

“Yes,” I said, suddenly shy. “Very young, still, but…”

“Nous aussi,” said Marion Aubert and Samuel Gallet—“us, too.”

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, dramaturg, and arts writer. Find her at and on Twitter @MarissaSkud.