Why there's so much interest in audiences behaving badly

Celebrities can bite and they usually cost money. Ordinary people do what they do for free - such as the person who recently got up on a New York stage and plugged their phone into a socket on the set to recharge

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 August, 2015, 10:58pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 August, 2015, 10:58pm


Clashes between artists and technology-wielding patrons are increasing in intensity. Stage actress Patti LuPone recently took a cellphone out of a startled audience member's hand as LuPone was making her grand exit at Lincoln Centre in New York, where she is appearing in a play.

Not every annoyed performer - and the vast majority of actors, dancers, comedians and musicians are annoyed at the sea of screens on which their art now invariably floats - go for the nuclear option favoured by LuPone, who once famously stopped in the middle of a big number in Gypsy to unleash a tirade upon an audience member taking photographs.

Still, even those hardened to watching audience members try and fail to wean themselves from their electronic devices were amazed by another story to emerge from New York in recent days, replete with video evidence. At the Broadway play Hand to God, an audience member climbed up onto the stage and plugged his cellphone into one of the outlets in the walls of Beowulf Boritt's church-basement set.

The patron, 19-year-old Nick Silvestri, who was quickly admonished by startled ushers, was apparently oblivious to the fact that most outlets on stage sets do not actually dispense electricity, and he certainly was not troubled by the social contract that keeps the audience off the stage. Designer Boritt was besieged with media inquiries as to how he felt about the audience member's intrusion - given that one of his aims was verisimilitude, he had good reason to take the incursion as a compliment. Nonetheless, he did tell Vanity Fair that the incident might give him pause if he ever was considering putting a toilet on stage.

There is reason to be sceptical about the story. People do all kinds of things to get attention, including climbing onto a Broadway stage. And given the past marketing prowess of the producer of the play, Kevin McCollum, it would not be beyond the bounds of possibility that the whole thing was a stunt. A very effective stunt, at that.

Once-serious arts journalism these days is increasingly devolving into a series of small BuzzFeed-like, Facebook-friendly items that, when they hinge on a juicy revelation that makes the reader feel superior, can score large amounts of online traffic, even though they require minimal reportage. When there's video that can be attached, all the better.

Hand to God, which is trying to gain a foothold at the box office, has scored so much ink from the errant-charger story that the producer really should buy the guy a new phone - with a portable power pack.

With many news outlets continuing to troll for such possible stories - easily written in a few minutes and certainly not requiring a reporter to spend an evening at the actual show in question - it is now much easier to score these items than produce serious discussion of the show's themes or merits.

The other interesting journalistic phenomenon illustrated here is the move away from the doings of celebrities and toward the doings of members of the public. We've long been interested in celebrities behaving badly, but there is a lot of new interest now in audience members behaving badly too.

For those who run the concerts and shows, this is a good thing. Celebrities can bite and they usually cost money. Ordinary people do what they do for free. Hand to God does not have anyone in its cast who could be called even remotely famous. Yet when you have a stage invader, you can still get ink - or, more accurately, clicks.

Still, the incident is an interesting reminder of the pervasiveness of charge-anxiety. Arts organisations and venues are going to have to confront that new insecurity, even if they wish they could just ban those pocket attention-pullers entirely. If the arts are serious about catering to the needs of their customers, and if they wish to break down as many barriers as possible, they are going to have to install charging stations in lobbies or beneath seats. Airlines and hotels have already figured this out: to relax means to be charged.

We've already seen the consequences of ignoring this truth - a man in search of juice jumping right into an imaginary world. At least he believed in the power of art.

Chicago Tribune