I enjoyed seeing a Sunday matinee performance of Nick Jones’ “Important Hats of the Twentieth Century” at The Warehouse Theatre recently. The entire cast—Andy Croston, Josh Jeffers, Matt Jones, Brock Koonce, Dave LaPage, Christopher Joel Onken, Matt Reece, Anne Tromsness—was superb, Jay Briggs’ direction deft. Though I must admit, it is Rick Connor’s set design that’s been an ongoing topic of conversation at my house for days now.
But if it’s a review of the production you’re looking for, go here. I want to talk about what I witnessed as an audience member during the Sunday, February 12, 2017 matinee.
“Important Hats of the Twentieth Century” is an absurdist comedy of manners...a sci-fi-noir farce...a play of prolonged silliness that, frankly, has too little to say to merit thoughtful discussion. Buried within the play are implications about fame and fashion, but little profundity. The play occasionally dabbles in the goals and ambition of fashion itself: should we value design that enhances the human form or hides it? Is it more important to look good or to feel good...to be comfortable? What are the rules that should govern what we wear, how we present ourselves to others? Moreover, is any of it lasting or true? Are we, indeed, what we wear?
I’m digging deep for these ideas. The play is more concerned with sci-fi campiness than exploring our deeper humanity. Still, there is something about how we behave, the rules we agree to follow (or disregard) in our civil society that the play wants to explore. Which is curious because my experience seeing the play performed was marked by significant (nay, oppressive) rule making and breaking.
Just before the play began, the audience was instructed to turn off our cell phones. This has become customary in the American theatre...almost like standing and saying the Pledge of Allegiance was in elementary school. Apparently, the actors can see and hear our blaring phones and this distracts them from acting...or so the story goes. Because my phone was set to silent, set deep in my pants pocket, I chose not to follow this rule. I’m a grown-ass man. I can make my own (wise) decisions on phone use at stageplays. Also, I’m willing to trust the rest of audience members to use their best adult instincts, too. If some bonehead makes a poor choice on this issue, I can face that apocalypse. And I know that any actor worth his or her salt can, too. The rule making here is unnecessary, patronizing. (To my knowledge, no effort is taken by The Warehouse Theatre to reroute passing trains, motorcycles, or the occasional whirring siren. We all—actors and audience—deal with it. It's a play, after all...not the terrifying ending of SOMEWHERE IN TIME.)
But that wasn’t all. Another rule was announced. The audience would need to remain seated during the play...no getting up for a quick stretch or a visit to the bathroom. There would be moving scenery and actors/crew in the aisles between scenes, so it would be in our best interests to stay locked in until intermission. Fair enough, I thought. I didn’t want to be trampled by an actor or stagehand, or run over by moving scenery at a play. That is, until about 40 minutes into the first act when I had to pee like a racehorse. Agony! I stayed with the remain in your seat rule until 50, maybe 55 minutes into the play, praying for the promised intermission. No dice. So, immediately after one of those disruptive scene changes, I made a bee-line for the exit. (Full disclosure: I know the theater space well...have screened there and acted in plays there. So there was little chance I’d get lost or confused finding my way to the toilet.) Luckily, I made it to bathroom just in time. Though, as you might imagine, as soon as I had completed by business intermission began.
NOT AN EXCUSE, BUT STILL... I was trained as a theatre-maker in college, a Furman University Drama major. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who not only respects the conventions of theatre-going, but offers mad deference to those who make theatre for a live audience. Though I work in film now, I much prefer making theatre to making movies. It’s more immediate, risky, exciting. But here’s the thing: I’d much rather attend a screening of a film than a performance of a play.
Playmakers ask too much of their audience...behave as if they are giving a rehearsed performance, too. Not satisfied to simply silence/power-down your phone or to stay in your seat even if you have to pee, the conventions of theatre ask the audience to pay rapt attention, to laugh when it’s supposed to be funny, to clap at the end (standing while clapping is preferable). Theatre asks me to buy a ticket that’s many times more expensive than a movie ticket, to show up at very specific times (only one performance per day!), and as if that wasn’t enough, locally-produced theatre asks me to watch my neighbors do the acting...rather than Meryl Streep or George Clooney or Jennifer Lawrence! (Incidentally, this is a joke. I’m perfectly happy seeing Anne and Brock and Matt act in plays in my hometown, but you get the gist, right? I'm using hyperbole.)
Basically, going to see a play is all about you doing one huge favor after another for the people putting on the play. It’s exhausting.
But there are other rules at play. Rules imposed on you by other audience members: you may not laugh too loud or long or shrilly. Or there will be hell to pay.
A young woman (who happens to be an actor who works in theatre locally) was sitting in the row behind me, laughing loud and long and shrilly. It happens—especially when friends and colleagues of the performers on stage are in the audience. We want our friends to know that we’re there, supporting their play-making endeavors. We want them to feel love and appreciation for their tireless efforts. And...we want them to do the same when they come to see us in a play. It’s one of those inside-baseball facts about live theatre: theatre-making people see plays to support other theatre-making people. There is a committed community of theatre-makers in a lot of cities like my hometown. Some in this community are professional actors, others are student actors and technicians, still others are theatre hobbyists...but all of them make up the local theatre-making community. And in subtle and overt ways, each of them signals support for the others. One way is by coming to see shows and, if so inclined, laughing at the funny parts.
This is what the Laughing Lady behind me at the “Important Hats of the Twentieth Century” matinee was doing. Almost every single spoken line that was meant to be funny got a legit laugh from her. Many got a snort, too. Often, her laugh-snorts clarified jokes for me. (Sometimes they clarified where a joke should have been but wasn’t.) A couple of times they made me miss a line or two...the actors hadn’t expected a laugh-snort there and didn’t give it a beat before moving on to the next line. But it was all in good fun. Nothing that struck me as out-of-sorts or rule breaking or anti-social or in any way aggressive. A fellow audience member—a member of the theatre-making community, no less—was enjoying herself, the play, and her friends...at a campy comedy, no less!
After returning to my seat from the aforementioned ill-timed pee-break, I learned that the Laughing Lady had been shouted down in the lobby for her behavior. Apparently two patrons had left the play at intermission in a huff. They confronted the concession people, the Laughing Lady, the house manager, the Managing Director of the theater, then stormed out, never to return. All future donations withheld, dammit! Because the Laughing Lady had been inexcusably disruptive.
Back at Furman, we were taught that there are no bad audiences, only bad performances. There is always something an actor can do to win over a reluctant audience. Performers have power. As I’ve gone out into the world and performed for hundreds of live audiences, I still adhere to this philosophy...with certain caveats. The customer is not always right...though I refuse to accept that I am powerless to prevail in front of certain audiences. Whereas I have experienced moments of complete, impenetrable ambivalence from a live audience, I’ve never been troubled by an audience appreciating the performance too much. My guess is that the Laughing Lady’s exuberance energized and thrilled the cast of “Important Hats.” Sunday matinees are hard gigs. Knowing that the audience is having fun helps.
But this was an audience-on-audience violation. A dispute between play-watchers, not a violation of the Fourth Wall. I was dumbfounded. It made no sense to me. You go into a live space to see a live play, stuff happens...living stuff happens. This is not Netflix and chill. This is “meat space.” To be crass, strangers fart with impunity in theaters. And the rest of us have to deal with it. We don't get to punch their lights out for it. You bought a ticket, bub. Suck it up. Stuff happens.
My wife, friends, and I listened to the Laughing Lady’s intermission tale in rapt disbelief. The concession folks even brought her a conciliatory glass of wine: “We’re so sorry!” The rest of us made quiet, encouraging small talk. "Don't worry about it," we assured her. "Some people are can't take a laugh." Then, like a stranger hijacking a Facebook thread, an older woman sitting next to us—right next to me, actually—broke in: “Come on. Your laugh is piercing. It’s very annoying.”
Record scratch/rip. Yet another audience member was going after the Laughing Lady full-bore. And so it continued until the lights dimmed for the second act: some of us complaining vehemently about the Laughing Lady, others of us defending her right to laugh-snort in public, still others quite possibly confused about what-the-hell was happening. Not one to demur, the Laughing Lady graciously engaged her new attacker in a polite (but ultimately pointless) discussion of audience etiquette...then relocated to a new seat. The show went on. The Laughing Lady did not seem to edit her behavior at all, she kept on laugh-snorting as the spirit led, and no punches were thrown. Still, it was a weird, oddly uncomfortable experience, that second act.
Apparently, there were even more rules to follow...rules I hadn’t known existed, rules that applied to people I couldn’t readily identify (older, grumpy-looking people?), rules that went against everything I’d been taught. The secret knowledge required to survive live play-going is more complicated than I’d known before that matinee at The Warehouse Theatre. It’s enough to make a fella stay home on a Sunday afternoon...Netflix and chill.
But that's the wrong takeaway, I think. I’m not going to bail on live theatre just because some patrons prefer their comedies lightly snickered rather than guffawed...and neither should you. (I’m certainly not going to skip out on my favorite place in town to see a play: The Warehouse Theatre...or dis any of those fine actors or crew members. Again: Rick’s stage design! Ingenious!)
And. I’m not going to establish or impose my audience etiquette rules on you. We go into a live theatre at the mercy of the rest of the fine folks who pay their money to sit next to us. If someone next to me wants to send a text during the performance, so be it. If someone wants to laugh-snort in my ear, fine by me. And if someone’s gotta bolt mid-way through the first act because he’s gotta pee like a racehorse, more power to him. The only thing not acceptable is to give up on theatre-making or attending because other bitching, laugh-snorting, small bladder, phone buzzing, stink-farting human beings are there, too. If live theatre-going has anything on film-going, it’s the live part...the humans together in a room part.
That Sunday at “Important Hats” was one of the most alive experiences I’ve had in ages. But only a small part of that had anything to do with the play that was being performed. People were there...actors, crew, audience...a Laughing Lady and her detractors. So much more than art was happening, you guys. It was life. And that is sacred.
Not sure about who will win at the Oscars this year...not even sure that I care. But I do know that these are my ten most favorite films of 2016 (in alphabetical order):
- ELVIS & NIXON
- EVERYBODY WANTS SOME
- HAIL, CAESAR!
- A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING
- LA LA LAND
- LOVE & FRIENDSHIP
- MAGGIE'S PLAN
- MORRIS FROM AMERICA
- OJ: MADE IN AMERICA
- SING STREET (my favorite of all)
I also liked (and recommend) CAFE SOCIETY, HELL OR HIGH WATER, KEANU, ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY, and WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT. These five films...somehow I missed them. But I bet I’ll really like them once I get around to seeing them: 20TH CENTURY WOMEN, LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT, MOONLIGHT, SILENCE, and TONI ERDMANN.
SNL RECAPS FOR PASTE MAGAZINE
See you in March...