"It's not funny!"

SnakAll the World's a Stage

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"It's not funny!"

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jan 25, 2012, 9:39 am

At last year's Royal National Theatre production of The Cherry Orchard, when the confused old servant, Firs, is forgotten and locked in the abandoned house, presumably to die, many in the audience laughed at his predicament causing one irate member to shout out "It's not funny!" I heard an interview with one of the actors who was pleased by the interjection.

This week I saw Juno and the Paycock, also at the National Theatre, and had a very similar feeling - although I didn't shout! At the end of the play, with all his furniture removed by the bailiffs, his daughter pregnant and abandoned, his wife leaving home for good and his son shot dead by Republican gunmen, Captain Jack Boyle, aware only of the pregnancy in this list of disasters, returns completely drunk from the pub with his friend Joxer to stagger about and deliver his closing lines about the world being in a "state of chassis". There was a lot of laughter at his inebriation and his confusion about the bare room. The audience know what's happening to him - should they laugh? I really don't think so.

Anyone have any other examples of inappropriate affect from theatre audiences?

jan 25, 2012, 10:30 am

When I slip on a banana skin it's a tragedy, when you do it's a comedy. You are obviously too good for this cruel, cruel world.

mar 25, 2012, 10:50 am

Sorry I didn't see this when it was first posted! Very interesting topic.

Probably the most famous examples of "inappropriate" audience affect are the riot after the premier of The Rite of Spring and the audience applauding Mother Courage at the end of Mother Courage and Her Children.

However, I was taught in my theater arts classes that any affect from the audience is because they're engaged in the material. If they're not reacting the way you want, then the actors/director/playwright are doing something wrong, not the audience. The worst thing an audience can do is nothing at all.

That said, I think that theater audiences today lack a certain education that makes events like you describe more likely to occur. I know that Chekhov is a serious playwright. I know that if I felt like laughing, that would be a comment on the production, not an appropriate reaction to the play, and I would stifle it. I suspect that this audience didn't know that, the scene was over-played to the point of being funny and so, uninformed, the audience laughed.

As an aside, I saw a production Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide where the costumes and the blocking were so over the top that I wanted to roll on the floor with laughter. After about 20 minutes of trying to stifle it (since the rest to the audience was clearly engaged in the music) I finally realized that if I was going to survive the performance, I had to keep my eyes shut and just listen to the music. Needless to say, we have not been back to see that opera company. I can listen to Gluck on the stereo at home.

mar 25, 2012, 2:20 pm

Chekhov is very funny, he meant to be funny. Only pretentious Method style directors made him oh so serious. If you are fortunate enough to see the Moscow Arts theatre perform Chekhov you will find the first three acts light, funny and vivacious, much like his short stories, the tragedy comes in the fourth act (along with the proverbial pistol).

mar 25, 2012, 3:13 pm

Ah, the laughing hyenas! Have I got stories to tell! But theatre audiences are much better than film, ime. (And no, I must say I disagree that audience reactions are always a sign of "engagement", plenty of times they are just trotting out their little egos for all to admire. There's a place and a manner for reacting favourably--applause, when the actors are waiting for it.)

Examples? Othello strangles Desdemona--some donkey brays. I love it when they miscalculate--when they think others will join in, and then instead get buried in total silence. Any moment of pathos is liable to get snickered at. The worst is that often they are moments of highest tension, the climax, and really, anyone who ruins that ruins everything. It's like being kicked out of reverie.

Too many moviegoing incidents to list.

apr 1, 2012, 12:00 pm

'Inappropriate' might be a sort of, er, inappropriate word here. Maybe 'unexpected'. Pirandello's '6 characters', like Stravinsky's 'Rite', provoked a cognitive dissonance in audiences on their first viewings, with, from the audience' (as one thing) point of view, ensuing appropriately violent reactions. (Though the first case did happen in Rome with Romans who, as a group, ah, maybe haven't been historically the most refined of audiences.) Chekhov, more than only humor or funniness, I think, used lightness and a rather devastating narrative structure, the later of which can be sometimes missed, the former easily confused with pure 'fun'.
But appropriate...by contrast, in one version of '6 characters' we saw in Rome, the production decided to pretty much empty the play of much of its meaning, all the way to including a longish, simple, directly comic vaudevillian interruption. Most of the audience - after the introduced scene, but in the middle of the ongoing play - appropriately, whole-heartedly, gave a standing ovation which was appreciated by the troupe. I wondered if Pirandello's grandson, an acquaintance, would have felt the whole thing appropriate. We instead left the theatre at the break. Appropriately.

aug 15, 2013, 3:37 pm

Live performance can carry a completely different emotional import for the viewer than a movie. It's harder to maintain emotional distance from what is happening onstage, so some people try to cocoon themselves by using humor or acting out. There might be a streak of creative jealousy involved as well, but I think it would be less likely to be the case than someone who heckles a comic or sings along at a concert, opera, or musical.

aug 15, 2013, 4:39 pm

Many years ago, my second husband was cast as Julius Caesar in a take-Shakespeare-to-the-masses theater company. The show was set in a banana republic, with Caesar as the dictator. Ok so far. However, the director decided that Caesar would make his appearance as the ghost dressed in a costume consisting of a pith helmet and white long johns--the classic onesie style with a drop panel in the back. (Note: the ex-husband was about six-foot four and 250 pounds.) He never, ever, not even once, made the entrance as the ghost without the audience laughing. He told me that he had learned that in order to be a decent actor you had to be able to leave all ego and embarrassment in the wings and just get on with it, and that's the only way he could keep doing that show.

The engagement of the audience is truly different in stage than in film. There's a reason that the actors say they feed off the audience's energy. Inappropriate reactions, whether from poor choices in the production or from clueless audience members, throws them off their stride. They have to pull themselves back to where they need to be in their own performance.

I was just watching this morning a documentary about Hamlet where they interviewed various actors who'd taken the part. Serveral talked about audience members who recite the famous lines along with the actors. One poor fellow told of a time there was a woman who was reciting the "To be or not to be" soliloquy not along with him, but half a line ahead of him. Must have been maddening, not just for the actor but for the people sitting around her!

dec 5, 2013, 10:54 am

An old prof of mine used to say "You learn more from bad theatre than from good." He also would liken some concepts to "A snake in the middle of the stage… you don't *want* to look at it… but…."

I used to slither through the audience at the interval with a small notepad. It's fascinating. For all our talk of "universality" the variety of audience reactions is just a big fat yummy treat.

One of my favorites: Glass Menagerie with Jessica Tandy, Amanda Plummer, John Heard and Bruce Davidson the couple in front of me at the interval "I go to the theatre to see a virtuoso performance, this isn't a virtuoso performance, the Dallas Cowboys are a virtuoso performance." Here's the kicker, he was right. Mr. Dexter had gone for sanding off all the rough edges and Jessica Tandy was- delightful- surely not Mr. Williams intent.

Everyone likes to talk about "feedback" in the world of social media. We have instant feedback on stage. It's what makes live theatre an extraordinary experience for actor and audience alike.