Friday, January 13, 2006

Show Off

Anyone who knows me (and who really knows anyone, when you get down to it?) will be aware of my interest in audiences; specifically in audience behaviour. To me, the twentieth century was a long period of shutting up, closing down and reining in the various things audiences got up to during a show. If you look into your crystal ball (and set it in reverse) you'd see that a few hundred years ago, house lights were usually kept on during a show, audience members yelled to each other across the room and if you didn't like a show, you got on stage and told the actors what they were doing wrong. Or, if you were up in the gallery (the 'toothpick and crutches crowd' - I have no idea what this means but I love the phrase) you'd assert your displeasure more pungently: the vegetable missile as a tool of criticism. This is when throwing tomatoes was an actuality, not just a Muppet-show caper, and along side the toms you might find spuds, carrots, eggs, pumpkins (ouch), chairs (double ouch) or worse. I've read of one performance which saw a hail of not only the above items, but a sack of flour, and pail of ash and a dead goose.

"Poor show, I say"

I don't know who brings a dead goose to a show, but you can probably tell that attending the theatre was a different story way back then.

Anyway, things are much less interactive these days, but we're not all automatons. One of the ways we can still comment publicly on a show in an mostly acceptable manner is to walk out. The walkout fascinates me, mainly because I never do it (professional courtesy and all that). It seems to me that there are a few kinds of walkout.

The Interval Walkout: a fairly low-impact walkout, the Interval Walkout allows you to avoid the rest of the show without making a spectacle of yourself. The sudden, unexpected freeing up of your time also makes for a refreshingly unexpected evening, though most people tell me this means sitting in a bar or fast-food outlet.

The In-Show Walkout: a far more barbed attack, this let's the rest of the audience (and, often, the performers) know that you're not amused. Unless you do the awkward and embarrassed apologetic tiptoe, in which case people tend to suspect a bathroom mishap.

The Preemptive Walkout: More of a social bonding thing, this is when two or more patrons turn up to a show and after some hesitation decide to ditch the thing and do something else. A wonderful feeling.

The Long-Distance Preemptive Walkout: This is when one decides a show is crap without even seeing it. Favourite tactic of Andrew Bolt, who last year blasted an entire festival without seeing a single show.

The Post-Show Walkout: A very subtle and polite walkout - there's always at least one audience member or group to bolt for the doors as soon as the applause kicks in. This allows others the belief that you've simply got to beat the rush/avoid a parking fine/get home and catch the babysitter in the act.

The Walkin: A very rare and confusing thing, this isn't just the "Oops, got caught in the tram doors" sneak-in five minutes after the show begins. It's the walk in an hour or more into proceedings. A recent show saw someone walking in a few minutes before the show's finale, and the excited patron only caught the encore. Always stumps those who notice the (very) latecomer.

I mention all this because a friend walked out of the MTC's Dumb Show last week, and this left me a mite confused. The stated reason was that she couldn't identify or find any interest in any of the characters. Fair enough. And I've read some scathing reviews of the show since. But I had a great time there: very accomplished and able actors, a fast-paced script and a nice design. Sure, the show was pretty middle-brow and there wasn't much we haven't seen before, but you can't expect much else from the MTC. Or, at least, you shouldn't reasonably expect much else, considering the subscriber base and business goals of the company. Nobody really looks to the MTC for cutting edge, experimental or deeply challenging work, and the closest plays to head in that direction in last year's season (Hitchcock Blonde and Cheech) were either awfully misogynist or too simple to really rattle any cages.

I'm not apologising for the play, and if you don't like it, more power to you. Tell people. Or throw a goose. For my part, I very rarely identify with a theatrical character, and by rarely I might even mean never. I probably identify more closely with dance, or something like that. Not 'character', especially as evoked through dialogue. Got a problem with that?


"I am the Mexican, by the way"

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