Every once in a while I get pointed to a blog post that is well outside my usual RSS feeds, but strikes a chord with me. Today, while I was trying to convince myself to get back to work a chain of links starting from one of my e-mail messages ended me up at Stuart Bousel’s recent post Theater Around The Bay: Please Continue Your Conversation At Home.
I don’t know who Stuart is—other than the claim at the end of the post:
Stuart Bousel is one of the founding artistic directors of the San Francisco Theater Pub, and a prolific writer and director. His website, http://www.horrorunspeakable.com, will tell you all about it.
The post describes an incident that happened at a play he was attending with a friend. Neither of them cared much for the play (though one was seeing it a second time) and were discussing the flaws of the production at intermission (which is one of the things that my family does at poor theater productions, trying to figure out why it isn’t working—we do similar analysis of good productions, trying to figure out why they are working so well). As a professional writer and director, Bousel undoubtedly does that to a greater extent (and with more real knowledge) than we do.
What happened to him was that a woman in the row in front of him turned around and told him “Hey guys, please continue your conversation at home. People can hear you.” If he had been talking during the performance, she would have been right to try to silence him, but during the intermission? while he was discussing the play he was watching? I don’t understand her point of view at all.
Bousel has a theory, though, based on observations of Bay Area audiences and cultural attitudes: people in the Bay Area are pleasure seekers, and “in full Yay Bay fashion, doesn’t want to hear anything that’s gonna harsh her buzz, and since I can’t prove otherwise, I kind of take it that it’s less that she cares what I think, so much as she objects to me expressing it at all.”
Bousel describes another incident that happened to a friend:
… being the only person laughing at a comedy performance she genuinely and heartily adored (these weren’t pity laughs), while a bunch of stone faced couples sat around her refusing to give the performer anything more than the occasional smile or titter. At the end of the show, the audience, practically silent the whole time, gave a standing ovation that mystified Helen. She had liked the show—a lot—but it was, after all, a light comedy. Afterwards, as the audience was filing out of the theater, a woman near her (“Lilybeth”) turned and said, “I can’t imagine how the performers could concentrate with you laughing like a hyena all night long.”
I have a hard time imagining actors in a comedy preferring a stone-faced audience to one that laughed at the right places. I have an even harder time imagining an audience believing that it is politer to give a standing ovation than to laugh at a joke. (Of course, since this is a third-hand story at this point, I’m free to conjecture all sorts of things—like that it was really intended to be a tragedy and was only funny because of how bad it was, or because the one person laughing was higher than a kite.)
Bousel’s point is that live theater depends on having an audience, a live audience—otherwise you might as well go watch TV at home. The audience should laugh at the humor, weep at the emotional scenes, and talk about the play afterwards and during intermission.
Santa Cruz may not have the large number and diversity of theaters that the Bay Area has, but the local audiences don’t seem to be as bad as Bousel paints the Bay Area audiences (or maybe he’s deliberately pulling out the most extreme examples he can think of ). Santa Cruz makes even more of the laid-back lifestyle and “what’s your pleasure?” attitude than San Francisco does, but less pretentiously—we have a lot of restaurants, but the expensive “concept” restaurants tend to fold while the ones that concentrate on good food and good service at a reasonable price tend to stay around for decades. Perhaps that is really what Bousel is missing in San Francisco—not the New York passion or the LA dreams, but honest individual responses that are not just groupthink.
It’s too bad that Santa Cruz does not have enough money floating around to support a bigger theater scene, because Bousel’s vision for what he wants the San Francisco Theater Pub to accomplish sounds like it would fit right in here.
I was noticing a comment further down from “Sig” saying
I frequently get the side-eye when I’m at museums and galleries and I talk about the art. I once got a haughty, deep sigh and a serious eye roll from a stranger who overheard me telling my museum companion that I thought a painting’s frame was gaudy. I didn’t even criticize the painting itself and I got eye rolled; and it’s not like the painting cared. But talking about art, curation, and the museum itself while still in the museum is typically frowned upon.
Sig should definitely come visit the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz. In the last year Nina Simon has made it the Museum’s mission to get people to interact more in the museum—she would love to have visitors to the museum talking animatedly about the art—even if the talk is mostly critical. (First Fridays are free, if that is an issue.)