For seven years I performed in an improvised comedy show in NYC. Suffice it to say I did many, many shows. Maybe once a month there would be someone in the audience who was unruly and out of line. It feels gross. Sometimes they would shout out somethign jerky to us actors, sometimes it was to fellow audience members. I remember walking offstage many times after shows and saying, “where was the house manager? How could that have happened? Why didn’t that guy get thrown out?” And so many times I was met with a shrug and a lame answer.
So I wasn't surprised when I read Peter Kim's article in Chicago Magazine about quitting Second City because he'd had enough of hearing audience members should out homophobic, misogynistic and racist slurs. He said it started happening around September 2015. His theory is that the bar for the public discourse has been lowered so much during this election that people have been given free rein to say the nasty things that are in their heads. I see that. I don’t think the election of 2016 will go down as one that put us as a country in our best light.
That said, I couldn't help but think about my times onstage (before 2015) and thinking there’s something else at play here.
Is It the Performer's Role To Keep the Peace? No. No way.
What got me so upset about this article is the lack of leadership I could tell from the producing team. First, I should say that I am basing my opinion only on what I've read in this article and what I know from personal experience. I know very little about the inner workings of Second City. Peter Kim doesn't mention any intervention on the part of the creative or producing teams. I couldn't help but think that if this behavior has been happening since 2015, that gives the producers plenty of time to come up with solutions to protect their actors and their audience members from hate speech. In over a year they could have come up with four clear strategies, tried each one out for 90 days, re-evaluated, and started working on one more.
Off the top of my head here are a few ideas (and these aren't even that good, but they're better than not doing anything and leaving actors to fend for themselves up there and allowing audiences to squirm in their seats)
- Seasoned performers, producers, and creative directors know what is pushing the envelope and what is over the line. There could be someone in the house who watches the show and tells the house manager when someone needs to go.
- Play a funny video preshow that light heartedly brings up what's okay to shout out during the show.
- Place signage around the theatre for the audience highlighting dos and taboos.
- Have the producers come up with a plan with the cast for how to handle things like this onstage: things to say to the audience member, things not to say, etc.
When You Make Theatre, You Make the Rules
Want your audience to stand? They will. Want them to wear masks during the show? Fair game. Want to give them the Playbills after the show? Why not? When you make theatre you make the rules. There is a bargain being struck - you will create rules, they will follow them. No one takes advantage of this situation. So, if the rules are that you can shout anything that you want over time people will shout whatever they want. When you kick someone out for acting like a jerk or saying awful things, that teaches other audience members the rules. The next time they come to the show, they will know what happens when they don't follow their end of the bargain.
It's a vulnerable place up there on the stage. It also requires a lot of courage for some people to shout something out in a room full of strangers. It's up to the leadership in the creative team to make sure that those people are taken care of so they can do their best work.