Wednesday, July 25, 2018

"You tell 'em, Hamlet!"

Here was an interesting question posed to me as a writer – do I mind if audiences talk back to the actors during performances of my work? It’s a cultural issue. For some cultures it’s accepted and even encouraged.

I’m referring specifically to talking back to the actors. Feel free to laugh out loud, cheer, spontaneously applaud, even gasp. And of course yakking to the person next to you or taking a cellphone call should result in the death penalty, but what about calling out encouragement to the actors or warning them that the butler has a gun?

It’s a tough one because when I write for a live audience (either in theatre or multi-cam TV) I generally don’t expect the audience to respond. I write in a certain rhythm and that flow would obviously be disrupted if folks were calling out things between lines.  On the other hand, I've written two short plays, THE HOOK UP and AVOCADO TOAST that are both interactive with the audience.  Those have been great fun and audiences really love to participate. 

I’ve had limited experience with paying customers just calling things out to actors on stage,  but I can tell you one time on a multi-cam sitcom I wrote we had an audience who engaged in this behavior and it really threw off the actors’ timing. Also, it was hard to eliminate the audience “feedback” from the soundtrack so we were unable to use it and had to resort to the laugh track that week, which I truly hate.

I also don’t know how the non-talkers feel about this. I imagine if they’re not expecting it it can adversely affect their theatergoing experience. But I’ve been to movie theatres in cities where this practice is common and since the audience is prepared for it, no one seems to mind. It's all part of the fun.

So I guess my answer is this: If the actors are prepared for it and don’t mind, and the other theatergoers are prepared for it and don’t mind then what the hell? My ultimate goal is to please audiences and have them leave happy and fulfilled so if this is part of their enjoyment talk away.

But if it’s a few isolated people sprinkled in the audience then no, you’re just spoiling the experience for everyone else. You’re rude and self-centered and don’t care about anyone else’s feelings. The beauty of live theatre is that you have live human beings on stage. They’ve rehearsed for weeks and they’re busting their ass on stage to entertain and move you. At least have the courtesy to let them perform uninterrupted.

This debate underscores the thing I so love about writing for the theatre (or multi-cams) – live audiences are part of the experience. And every audience for every performance is different. There’s always a sense of excitement and suspense. You never really know how an audience will respond. Last year on Broadway I saw THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG. There was wall-to-wall laughter; one giant guffaw after another. Seemingly bulletproof. But talking to one of its producers he said there are occasional nights when the cast is just a little off or the vibe is weird in the theatre and the entire evening falls flat. You can’t take anything for granted.

But the upside is you could also go see a live performance one night that is absolutely thrilling and far exceeds your expectations.

So in conclusion, I think it depends on the circumstances, although I would be very curious one time to see one of my full-length plays in this environment.   Who knows?  I might get into the spirit of it and spontaneously call out "Brilliant!  Who wrote that?" 


Tim Rifenburg said...

When Summer (the Donna Summer musical currently playing on Broadway) was in previews My wife and I went to see it. While enjoyable to watch and listen to(the 3 performers playing Donna Summer at various points in her life were fantastic) I had problems with some audience members singing along. I found it lessened my enjoyment a bit because it took me out of play and distracted me from being absorbed into the experience. I am sure they were enjoying themselves but it was a minor issue for me.

E. Yarber said...

The issue is a lot like the oft-discussed question of actors ad-libbing during a performance... can you really expect people to come up with better stuff on the spot than whatever you spent days and weeks writing and rewriting? Theater started out as a ritualized event, part of seasonal festivals, so interacting with your neighbors on stage was accepted as a socially bonding tradition, while traveling players hoped for similar interplay with local crowds as a means of being accepted by those strangers. Only later was a playwright considered to have a distinct voice from the community at large.

I've seen AVOCADO TOAST. That worked because the audience participation was built into the play. There was a definite space for the viewers to join in, but the work was structured so they couldn't dominate the story. Likewise, shows like TONY AND TINA'S WEDDING are built around a semi-improvised relationship between cast and audience.

On the other hand, when THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW took off as a midnight show because of the audience interaction, the makers tried to repeat that success with a sequel called SHOCK TREATMENT. This time they actually put a fictional audience into the film, showing the costumes they expected viewers to wear and the responses to make at given times. Lightning didn't strike twice. As fixed as the byplay before the screen got with ROCKY, people didn't want to be told what to do with the film.

I actually had someone try to put a heckler in a BOOK I'd written. When a professional editor had to step aside because of a family crisis, the guy who'd pitched the project to me brought in a total amateur. This new guy had no idea how books were packaged, but decided to make himself a character in the manuscript as the "Funny Editor." The results were unreadable, as my text was randomly interrupted three or four times a page while this moron made inane remarks undercutting my carefully researched narrative. I had to pull the plug on the entire project.

By the way, the title of today's post is more accurate than you might imagine. Shakespeare's Globe Theater ran plays in an open-air arena on the same model as the bear-baiting pits nearby, and the audience expected to make an entire afternoon of the show just like a baseball game. If you've ever seen Olivier's HENRY V, which opens with a recreation of this show, you'll see that the best seats in the house were actually ON STAGE, noblemen lining up on either side like celebrities sitting court side at a Laker's game. So when Hamlet stepped aside to deliver his "To Be or Not to Be," solo, the audience saw rich guys smirking and slurping shellfish two feet away from the actor.

Steve Bailey said...

For years, John Cleese has been milking the story of him and Michael Palin performing Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketch on stage in NYC. At one point, Palin did something to break up Cleese, who then completely lost his place. So Cleese turned to the audience and called out, "What's the next line?", and the audience yelled it out to him.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I once watched an interview with laugh track mixer Carroll Pratt. He brought this very thing up when talking about sweetening shows that had live audiences, and when asked if different regions of the country, or even different countries (like Canada or Mexico) laughed and reacted differently; he noted from observation that black audiences had a tendancy to talk back to the actors moreso than other ethnic audiences, though also noted that a show like THE JEFFERSONS was an exception, given that it really wasn't a show catered strictly to black audiences, but that it was, "an any-husband-wife show."

Lemuel said...

And of course, the ancient story of the bad actor playing Hamlet, responding to boos and catcalls, retorting "Don't blame me, I didn't write this shit!"

Mike Bloodworth said...

Thanks for the warning. I was planning on telling out, "Soylent Green is people!" at your next play. But, now I'll just keep my mouth shut. Unless, of course, someone else does it first. Then all bets are off.

Diane D. said...

Off topic: Larry David has a hilarious article in the NYT OP-ED page today, entitled “The Most Important Meal of the Day”. I can’t give a link because I’ve already read my 10 free articles for this month. I read Larry David’s article in today’s hard copy edition.

Corvus Imbrifer said...

The Importance of Taking Children to the Theatre

So back the 70s (when ferns ruled the earth) the Ahmanson Theater here in Los Angeles put on Sunday matinees where kids were particularly welcomed. (And probably still does.) It was at one of those performances that I learned that stage and screen are not the same thing.

'The Guardsman' was the play, Maggie Smith was 'The Actress' and at one point she delivered a line that was so laconically droll that I laughed and laughed -- till my mother leaned over and informed me "She can hear you." I looked up, and there, from her place on the apron, looking down directly at me, her face a vision of saintly patience and forbearance, was Dame Maggie herself, waiting. For me. The lightning bolt struck my wee television-soaked mind: theater is different from TV. Very, very different.

Also that actors have to put up with a lot. Thank you, Dame Maggie.

Tom said...

On the cultural angle: as an ex-pat Brit I don't even really understand applause at movies. Shouting out at a real theatre, other than a kids' show or a pantomime or other deliberatively interactive work, is very hard to countenance.

I otherwise foresee all farces being resolved pretty quickly. Someone will just shout: "No! Instead of exiting by that door now, just wait another five seconds and I promise somebody will enter by this door who could explain the misunderstanding very quickly if only he ran into you!"

YEKIMI said...

he noted from observation that black audiences had a tendancy to talk back to the actors moreso than other ethnic audiences

Being from a lily white background and a lily white city, my first experience with this was when the first Superman [Christopher Reeve version] came out and the only theater fairly near to me that was playing it was in a nearby city that had a large African-American population in that section where the theater was located. I and a friend sat through the movie trying to focus on what was happening on screen till I just gave up and began listening to the crowd screaming at the screen ["Fly away, Superman, he got the Kryptonite!" "Miss Teschmacher, you have some nice titties." "Hey, you motherfucker Lex! Quit messing around with Superman or he gonna tear your dick off!"] I was thinking to myself "You do realize that this is a movie and THEY CAN'T HEAR YOU!?!" Never went back to that theater. Years later was telling an African-American friend about this and he just started laughing, saying "It's been like that for decades!" Nowadays, doesn't matter what skin color you are, people think going to the movies is time to hold a communal gabfest and fuck anybody who is there to watch the actual movie.

DT said...

Whoa! Did you hear about this, Ken?

What do you think???

Unkystan said...

Ken, I just saw in the Hollywood Reporter that there are talks of a reboot of Frasier in the works for CBS. Anything you can share?

Brian said...

Here's something I think you will be interested in. The only episode of 'Family Guy' that has references to 2 shows that you worked on - 'MASH' and 'CHEERS'.

at the end it is cut off, but continued here :

VP81955 said...

The black and white audience entertainment cultural divide isn't all that different from churchgoers' attitudes in predominantly white congregations versus black ones...although as a Catholic, I'm not sure whether that applies to those attending Masses.

Peter said...

Re. the article DT linked to

"I hear Grammer is currently meeting with writers who are pitching different concepts for the potential followup series."

How can this happen without the involvement of the show's creators? Either this story is bullshit or they're involved too?

Frasier was genius but it had a great run and should be left alone, especially now that John Mahoney is no longer with us.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ken, just wanted to show you were featured in a ScreenCraft blog post today.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Corvus Imbrifer: That's a great Maggie Smith story.

E. Yarber: Londoners are used to seeing long queues of people waiting to get into the Prince Charles Cinema near Leicester Square, which has weekend audience participation shows. The one that made the thing famous was Sing-along-A-Sound-of-Music, but they also do Rocky Horror Picture Show costume nights and, the one I find particularly amusing to think of, Quote-along-The-Big-Lebowski, where the audience is encouraged to show up dressed in bathrobes and the bar serves White Russians.

I believe a good time is had by all. Of course, English Pantomime also has a tradition of encouraging the audience to shout things. Mostly, if I've understood this correctly, "It's BEHIND YOU!"


gottacook said...

"How can this happen without the involvement of the show's creators?" The creators don't own the rights to the series; CBS evidently does, or Paramount, or Viacom (which may or may not all be the same company at the moment, or possibly within a few weeks).

Nancy said...

If 'Frasier' is re-booted, would you be involved Ken?

jcs said...


In the first season of FRIENDS there is a wooden support beam close to the flat's door, in the left corner of Monica's kitchen. This beam later magically disappears as it probably blocked valuable camera angles.

Did sets on your shows ever lose certain features without explanation?

Jahn Ghalt said...

Except for Rocky Horror (the film) talking back to the screen is not only distracting but pretty weird (no?)

Weird sometimes does not stop me, but the closest I've come to "talking back" was at a recent showing of Yound Frankenstein.

I was so "up" for that, that I would laugh at the jokes before the punch lines.

Folks didn't seem to mind - especially since I soon got over it and settled in.

VincentS said...

I'm going to post this on Donna Hoke's Playwrights page on FB. If you want me to stop doing that, let me know, Ken.

Mike Doran said...

Maybe off-topic, maybe not:

In the mid-'70s, I went to the Studebaker Theatre on Michigan Ave. (since defunct) to see a British farce called Big Bad Mouse.
This play was on a USA tour, with its stars, Jimmy Edwards and Eric Sykes, two of England's most popular comedy performers.
Jimmy Edwards was a Colonel Blimp type; stout and bellicose, with a sideburn-mustache combo that was legendary in the Empire.
Eric Sykes was tall, thin, and lugubrious; Edwards's foil most of the time, but capable of a tart comeback when necessary.
On his first entrance, Edwards stopped short and addressed the audience: "I scarcely call that an ovation! AGAIN!!"
And he stalked offstage, was re-cued, and re-entered to a louder round of applause.
A little after that, Eric Sykes entered, and took a small tape player out of his pocket, which played loud applause: "I'm not taking any chances here …"
Not long after that, Jimmy Edwards again addressed the audience:
"Something we should make clear at the outset: This is not cinema or the television! WE ARE ACTUALLY HERE!!"
The whole play went along in this fashion, with Edwards bellowing at the cast and the audience, Sykes getting in asides here and there, and the other players (who'd been on the tour for most of a year) long since resigned to the inevitable.
This was the tail end of a bad Chicago winter, but the Studebaker was sold out. Sykes and Edwards made more than a few references to the rotten weather throughout the performance.
Big Bad Mouse was a hit in Chicago; Edwards and Sykes made the rounds of local talk shows, where they totally bewildered the Midwestern hosts.
They were all set to extend the local engagement - when Something Happened.
I don't know how many characters I have left, so I'll tell about Something another time … maybe.

Liggie said...

Carey Mulligan performed on Broadway a few years ago, and her role required her to prepare a food dish. She mentioned one night that an audience member in the back would comment on what ingredients she was adding: ("Noo Yawk" accent) "Oh my God, there's onions!"

Kaleberg said...

I remember watching the fight scene late in Silent Running where the protagonist, trying to save the last forest, and the bad guy, trying to destroy it, are wrestling with an atomic bomb. The protagonist briefly got control of the atomic bomb. My friend couldn't help it. "You've got a weapon there. Use it." It was a college audience, and the movie had been rather a slog.

(My friend was used to talking in movie theaters. His girlfriend, also a friend of mine, was blind, so he would quietly fill her in on the action.)

Jim said...

English Music Hall used to have a great tradition of audience participation, but that was in part becasue the music halls tended to be attached to bars, and they'd continue serving throughout the peformance. The great Fred Karno had a sketch called Mumming Birds that made fun of it, and was described by Stan Laurel as the funniest thing he'd ever seen in his life. Charlie Chaplin, who had appeared in that alongside Laurel, later stole most of it for his Essanay short A Night in the Show. A hundred years on, you get the feeling that you really had to be there to find it funny.

From England, it looks very much like it was the US that made theatre into a sort of religion, where the audience was meant to sit back, admire and worship what was happening, and not interupt the performers. I don't know of any American theatre that had the equivalent of the Empire Promenade. There are lots of fun stories that come up if you Google those last two words, but in brief, right up until the late nineteenth century there was no wall between the back row of seats in the two circles and the bars behind, and patrons were free to wander between the two as they felt fit. Consequently the Dress Circle was the working ground for lots of prostitutes (after all what respectable lady would go to the theatre on her own), while the Upper Circle was one of the most notorious gay cruising areas in London.

Sadly it was a couple of scandalised visiting Americans that eventually brought all this to an end. And in a last hedonistic stand, when the barriers were eventually put up, a young Winston Churchill was among the army cadets that tore down the first, canvas, screens, and forced the theater to call in the bricklayers. Lots more here.

DBenson said...

Favorite audience participation from a campus audience, mid-1970s: The movie was "Blackbeard the Pirate", a moderately entertaining swashbuckler with Robert Newton as the title villain. He'd already played Long John Silver by then, and had escalated his now-trademark ARRRs to the point of slipping little ones after every few lines. The student crowd loved him more than the dull young lovers.

There came a sequence where the young lovers escaped from somebody or another and boarded a waiting ship. It was mysteriously silent. As they began their suspenseful search for life, one guy in the back yelled "ARRR" and a few people laughed. Somebody else yelled "ARRR". Soon maybe half the audience was yelling "ARRR". A door bursts open and there's Newton. He shouts "ARRR". The whole audience whistled and cheered.

Another moment came at the end of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis". The saintly Maria, making peace between symbolic management and labor, persuades the city's executive ruler to extend his hand to the foreman of the oppressed laborers. The foreman starts to extend his hand. One voice yells "Don't do it!" It got a laugh, possibly because the audience wasn't buying the simplistic happy ending to such a wild ride of a movie.

As a rule, I prefer to leave heckling to professionals at MST3K and Rifftrax.

Mike Doran said...

Since nobody asked …

Big Bad Mouse was selling out at the Studebaker Theatre, and was about to have its engagement extended by four weeks.
Suddenly, the Health Department in Chicago decided to conduct a surprise inspection of the Studebaker, resulting in the temporary closing of the theater (there was a primary election coming up, which led to the burst of civic activity).
And I do mean suddenly: a huge crowd had come that evening to see the show, and there were Jimmy Edwards and Eric Sykes standing at the box office, quite upset about the whole thing, as the refunds were being paid out.
The producers of the tour, who couldn't get a guarantee of a reopening, cancelled the remainder of the engagement.
In the following week, Jimmy Edwards gave interviews all over Chicago TV and radio:
"The Play Did Not Close!!! It Was The Bloody THEATAH That Closed!!!!!"
Jimmy Edwards and Eric Sykes never returned to Chicago …

Mike said...

@Mike Doran: I thoroughly enjoyed your yarn about Jimmy Edwards & Eric Sykes. The best comments posted on this blog all year, apart from any of mine.
As you'll probably know, Sykes was one of Britain's most successful comedy writers.

Jeffrey M. Jones said...

Before moving on to bigger things, Tyler Perry used to mount enormous productions on what was left of the Chittlins Circuit. Sitting in that audience was a very pleasant revelation--audience participation was not only expected, it was written into the script. In a similar vein, I spent a couple summers with a tiny touring theatre company in Northern California. The repertoire always included a children's play and in one of those a character (played, with glee, by the elfin artistic director) chasing another character would turn to the audience and ask, "Where did he go?" with predictable results. Again, a revelation...