Friday, 14 January 2011

Beware the Boiled Sweet Brigade

I’ve just been reading an old Shenton’s View blog post for The Stage, about audiences, and how integral they can be to a performance. He was looking at it from a fellow-audience-member point of view – clearly, in one evening, he suffered from the ‘cougher’ and from a couple of ‘talkers’ and ‘gigglers’. He found it so off-putting he requested to move seats during the interval.

Imagine then, what it’s like to be an actor with distractions like that from the audience. There is, for example, as well as the aforementioned offenders, the ‘boiled sweet brigade’. These are the folk of a certain age who will usually attend on a Tuesday or Wednesday night, or a matinee if there is one, they may have a rug to put over their knees while they enjoy the entertainment, and they will have brought a lovely bag of Werther’s Originals to suck on. There is little more off-putting during a quiet, emotion-ridden scene for an actor, than the sound of a boiled sweet being tentatively unwrapped. It takes forever and is never nearly as quiet as the opener assumes.

There are also the ‘whisperers’ – possibly worse even than ‘talkers’ although it’s a fine line. ‘Whisperers’, certain that they can’t be heard, may well share a running commentary alongside the action on stage, and fail to realise that when the house lights go down and the beginners take the stage, that it is time to shut up.

Audiences also feed off one another, although it’s unlikely they realise that they do. I’m always grateful when I’m in a play that isn’t billed as a comedy, but may have the occasional humorous line, to have a ‘laugher’ in the audience. This is someone who guffaws heartily at the slightest suggestion of a joke, and so confident and vocal is their amusement that the rest of the audience loosens up and is brave enough to laugh too.

In the recent production of Darker Shores that I ASM’d on, there was one particular performance where the audience, thanks to adverse weather, was less than expected and therefore somewhat scattered about the auditorium. There were no ‘laughers’ and due to the dispersal of the audience members, no one had the confidence to even chuckle. The actors literally had to battle against the silence that assaulted them at every turn and it was exhausting.

Then there is the opposite of that. I experienced, during my recent run of Skylight, a couple of audiences who were so involved I wondered if I’d wandered into a pantomime. At every performance I was gratified by the stillness and silence – boiled sweets were on hold, the ‘fidgeters’ were unmoving in their seats – they were truly engaged at every performance. Then on one occasion, when my character went to check her one-bar fire was working, I had two people call out “it is on!”. On another night, after my most ranting monologue, a woman in the audience half-whispered, half-shouted “Yes! Great!”. This is a phenomenon I’ve never encountered before but it amused me greatly! They, whoever they were, will go down in the annals of my most-favourite audiences of all time.


  1. Sarah, I went to a concert years ago featuring Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite and sat next to a woman who unwrapped a sweet all the way through "Solveig's Song". It was all I could do not to throw her over the balcony.

    My cousin was in the audience for a performance of "The Dream of Gerontius" I was singing in and told me that the two women she'd sat next to had talked throughout. All I can think is - why come?

  2. Exactly Kath! That's precisely how I feel!

    I went a couple of years ago to a community-devised and performed show in one of the less-priveleged areas of London. It was free, and the audience was, on the whole, made up of people who weren't used to coming to the theatre because financially it was out of their reach. They were I think mostly relatives of the kids who were performing.

    The first half of the show, which was about the history of their community, was a small orchestra playing tea dance favourites, and I became more and more angry as the musicians were utterly disrespected by the audience, who talked at volume, ate and drank at volume, ignored the performance and barely applauded at the interval.

    However, in the second act, when their relatives were performing the play they'd devised, and the music was less vintage and the themes were something they recognised and could connect with, they became an entirely different audience. They were so involved and engaged and excited and appreciative that they called out to characters on stage and clapped every time they liked something. They gave a standing ovation at the end. I came away feeling lucky to have been part of something so special.

    So perhaps some people just choose the wrong things to go and see?!