Thursday, January 10, 2008

Being a Good Audience

(News-Herald, January 10)Audience misbehavior has always been a challenge; it’s not just Kids These Days. The Franklin Band once threatened to stop holding concerts unless people got their children under control; that was in the 1930’s.

I’ve been both in and in front of many area audiences over the years, and there are plenty of highs and lows. For many years Oil City audiences were the worst, as if large groups had stepped into the OCHS auditorium to chat and were angry that folks up on stage kept trying to interrupt. They’re much improved since those days. Choir director Doran Gilhousen is legendary in Franklin for his lessons on proper concert decorum. Probably the best venangoland audience members are the red hat ladies; I know few performers who aren’t happy to see rows of red and purple in the audience.

There are some simple rules to remember. Be on time. If your child doesn’t have the concentration for anything longer than a short cartoon, leave the poor child at home. Leave the Items in Crinkly Wrappers there, too (which sadistic candy maker decided to wrap little pieces of candy individually in twelve layers of cellophane?). But the biggest issues deal with audience participation.

Less is not automatically better. One unnerving feature of many Sunday matinee audiences at the Barrow can be their unflinching politeness. They will later assert that they had a great time, but during the performance it seems they are reluctant to interrupt by clapping or laughing or otherwise showing signs of life. This can unnerve performers; a bit of audience reaction is the only sure way to know whether you’re doing a good job or not.

Audience participation must also take into account the occasion. I have always loved Franklin High graduation in the park downtown. But the open air setting invariably encourages a few folks to hoot and holler as if they were at a NASCAR rally.

It is not that an audience is not part of a show. If it weren’t, performers would do their thing in big empty halls and ceremonies like marriage and baptism would occur in silent sanctuaries. But some of us in the fifty-and-under age bracket seem to have lost track of what the audience’s role is.

You can see this in televised performances such as music awards shows or even the weekly concert segment on the Today show. The band is playing, the crowd is hollering and dancing, and as the camera swoops across the audience, people turn their backs on the performers so that they can wave and gesture for the camera. The performer could be presenting an awesome milestone, a memorable musical moment, but the camera-fixated audience will never know it. Enjoying the concert takes a back seat to putting on a little show of their own.

Well, here’s the only rule you need to remember when wondering about audience participation: if you are in the audience, the performance is not about you.

That’s why wedding audiences (most of the time) behave appropriately—because there’s no question who is the star.

In any kind of modern concert situation, hollering will occur. Hollering that occurs because an audience member is so excited and transported by the music that he just has to holler—that’s good hollering. The audience member who hollers because he would like to get everyone in the room to pay attention to him—that guy needs to go home and stay there.

This rule also applies to sporting events. Cheering, hollering, getting caught up in the excitement of the game—that’s all appropriate behavior. But if you’re not wearing a team uniform, relax-- the game is not about you.

Oddly enough, this is also all true of the performers. A performer who steps out on stage for no purpose other than to proclaim, “Hey, look at me!!” is not destined for greatness. A player needs to be about the game, an actor needs to be about the character, and a musician needs to be about the music. That’s why audience misbehavior is a problem—it takes the performers attention away from where it needs to be.

It’s as true now as when we were children—it is rude to interrupt (whether “interruption” would require poorly time clapping or a flamethrower).

Oh, and for folks in the fifty-and-older group, there is another issue, and I mention it here because the people close to you don’t know how to broach the subject nicely. But when you’re sitting in the audience, sharing comments, questions and reactions with your seatmate, you aren’t nearly as quiet as you think you are. Just one more reason the Kids These Days are not the only audience members in need of training.


Dittman said...

Nice one, but you left out my pet peeve - Standing O creep.

Any performance (and I mean any), no matter how slipshod or poorly put together gets a standing ovation in this area.

It's insulting to really good performances and to struggling ones it says, "That's OK, we know that was all you were capable of." It also flattens out any attempt at improving the level of craft (especially with young performers), because the director may be saying that they could be doing better, but the audience is telling them, this is the best thing I have ever seen....

I remain the jerk in his seat at a mediocre show, refuting peer pressure....

Anonymous said...

And eating? What is with the EATING? and who needs a bottle of water during a concert? How about the "I came late and now I need to reach my family in the middle of the row" TOO BAD for you, you sorry-face latecomer! ARGH!

(We were at a choir concert last night. Audience gets a B-, and we experienced serious Standing O creep)


Peter A. Greene said...

Standing O's were squeezed out of this column because there wasn't enough space to properly address them and still talk about anything else. Which means, I suppose, that someday I'll do an entire column about it.

I am also the crotchety old fart still sitting while others leap to their feet because, well, nothing actually burst into flames on stage, so it must be a triumph. It's unfortunate that something which can be a really joyful and exhilarating moment has been so badly cheapened.

Dittman said...

Don't know if you saw this or not:
George Bernard Shaw, wearing his music critic’s hat, wrote that the silence at a London performance of Liszt’s “Dante” Symphony represented not rapt attention but audience distaste. Liszt, Anton Rubinstein and virtuosos like them would have been offended had listeners not clapped between movements, although in Beethoven’s case the point is moot, given that hardly anybody played more than one movement of a Beethoven sonata at a time.

Le_Fin said...

I added a link to your blog from mine. :)

Chris Griswold said...

I sit. I can't tolerate needless standing ovations.

And yes, what is with the rodeo shouts at the Broadcast or at graduations? "We want to show we support you and also to make you look like a hillbilly by association!"

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