The Playgoer: To Walk or Not to Walk

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

To Walk or Not to Walk

This thoughtful piece by Nosheen Iqbal in the Guardian on the low "rate of return," if you will, of most playgoing experiences reminded me that one of theatre's biggest obstacles in finding a large audience in this day and age is the huge investment it requires of a patron. And I don't just mean money. The kind of time and attention theatre requires is substantially different than at films, concerts, comedy shows, and other entertainment events outside of the home.

No issue makes this contrast clearer than the question of walking out. I think most would agree it's somehow emotionally harder to walk out on a play than a movie. First, if you paid $100 as opposed to $10 you might want to get your money's worth. Also there's the perhaps unconscious respect for live actors, a feeling you might cause personal offense to leaving their performance (especially if your departure takes away, say, one-fifth of the total audience), as opposed to flickering images on a screen.

But I have to admit, as I get older, and see more and more plays, I feel a little less bad about walking out. I never used to, but I've "ankled it" twice in the last year, at pretty major productions: "Distracted" at the Roundabout, and "Up" at Steppenwolf. (There are other shows that shall remain nameless that I sure would have liked to jump ship on, but either had no intermission--damn those!--or else I was "on a job" or obligated to someone personally to see it.)

Both were new plays and I found myself just flat-out bored by them at halftime. I had no curiosity about where the plot was going, and while the performances and productions were adequate, I had seen enough to get a sense of the actors', directors' and designers' work. One was a free ticket, the other was just a $20 rush seat; so I guess I didn't feel any economic obligation. And I remember in the case of the one I paid for feeling perfectly justified that I had paid for the right to walk out! And that I'd be perfectly willing to write off that twenty bucks as a loss, spend another $20 on a good bottle of wine and get home an hour earlier, where I can enjoy a much better TV show than the one basically being attempted live on stage.

I won't get into the merits or lack thereof for now in the two particular shows (though I'm happy to debate them in Comments if you wish), but these experiences were kind of liberating. We don't have to take it, I thought. Theatre is not school.

And let's be frank: if you rent a movie and don't like it twenty minutes in, you turn it off. Don't like what's on PBS? Switch to Comedy Central. Don't like that book you're reading? No one will ever know if you just put it down, donate it to a library, or actually drop it in the trash! But walk out on a play...tsk tsk.

I'm not saying all theatre artists have an obligation to entertain me or any and all individual playgoers, personally. But theatre must accept the consequences. There is no such thing as a "captive audience"--especially now. (Unless, perhaps, Soho Rep where one must literally cross the stage to exit!) I think the fear of being a captive audience against one's will is what keeps a lot of folks away from theatre, especially when easier alternatives avail themselves. They fear that they'll spend all this money, all that time getting to the theatre, and then find themselves sitting in a very uncomfortable seat for three hours of unescapable boredom. And then have to get home.

That's the fear, not necessary the reality, I know. (It's more likely to only be 90 minutes of boredom these days.) But that fear is out there. I wonder what we in the theatre can do to disabuse people of that? Earlier curtain times? Better seating? A different marketing and cost-structure plan for short intermissionless plays vs big classic three hour events? (Pay by the hour?) I recall that producer in Chicago standing in the lobby offering refunds at intermission to dissatisfied customers, and I hate the idea. But if it works...

Then again, maybe I'm just getting cranky. And maybe when you find yourself sitting through not just bad new plays, but simply "ok" runthroughs of classics, counting down the scenes you know are left (ok, we got the mad scene, the sword fight, that last many left?)
maybe it's just time for a vacation.

Bah Humbug.

1 comment:

Thomas Garvey said...

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it's antithetical to what theatre is supposed to be about - "live presence," "community," etc. You can't have that and at the same time act as if you were flipping through channels on cable. At the same time, however, I admit I've occasionally walked out on shows at intermission - usually at Boston's American Repertory Theatre. But that's a special case - one of such compounded bad faith over so many years that no real relationship with the theatre is possible. Recently, I admit, I was sorely tested by a play by Jordan Harrison, but I hung in there, even though it gave me a migraine and briefly I thought I might throw up. In the end, I guess I don't walk out on incompetence - I see those performances through. But I might walk out on hypocrisy and bad faith - in short, on bad moral, rather than aesthetic, behavior.