"It's not funny!"
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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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.