Play Interrupted

Why audience behaviour matters in live performances.

Published: April 19, 2013 3:01 am

A few weeks ago,actors Naseeruddin Shah and Rajit Kapur presented their much-lauded play A Walk in the Woods to a packed house at Kamani Auditorium. In the play,two diplomats from India and Pakistan are trying to ease tensions between their countries. Their negotiations hit a stalemate and,in a final attempt,the two decide to go for a walk and chat. As the tension builds up,what a rapt audience does not need is a real-life disturbance — especially in the form of a press photographer,who has ignored requests to stop shooting because it was disturbing the actors. When the flashbulb went off yet again,Shah stopped mid-sentence,and told the cameraman to leave. “This is not the first time I have had to ask a pesky photographer to leave the hall,” he says.

“Over the past decade,the audiences’ attention span seems to have shrunk,thanks to TV,and their insecurities increased,thanks to cellphones. Cellphones have become the most-spoiled and most-attended-to member of the family. We theatre people have to live with giant glow worms during blackouts and unwanted music during acts,just as earlier generations had to live with the rustling of programmes,crackling of plastic bags and inexplicable coughing fits. Now,we have yet another snake in our Eden — the cameras in cellphones,” says Shah.

Artistes across genres agree with him. They’ve done the same far too many times — stopped performances to haul up a person in the audience. “Performances should be treated as performances. We don’t want audio or video recordings of concerts. They violate both,our intellectual property as well as privacy. A concert should be about the audience and the auditorium,” says dancer Malavika Sarukkai.

While she has encountered trolls in the audience from Kathmandu to Chennai,she recalls a show in which she “performed a piece with great control and concentration after spotting a person making a video of the show”. “After the piece,I walked straight off the stage,my ghungroos ringing angrily,and accosted the man. Some of us don’t want to be on YouTube or Facebook or any of the social media sites where many of these pictures may end up,” she says.

Artistes say that announcements from organisers to switch off cellphones and not take photographs (or use a flash) are frequently ignored. “Fifty-sixty years ago,we musicians would crave to hear wah! wah! from the audience and see the joy in their faces. Now,I am glad if they just turn up on time,stay silent and not keep walking in front of the stage,” says Pt Devabrata “Debu” Chaudhuri. In his late-seventies,he has mastered the art of tuning off and immersing himself in his sitar and raga instead of worrying about the audience. Unlike him,Pt Ronu Majumdar jokes,“There are times I wonder if I should play the flute or listen to cellphones ringing in the audience”. He is known for his gentle rebuke to the audience at shows: “If your friend wants to contact you,he will call later,” he says. It works sometimes,he says.

From the stage,the audience in a darkened hall are indistinct faces. So,disturbances normally filter on to the stage as noise — from the shuffling of late comers to people talking. “People come in late and then disturb those already seated,i.e. people who bothered to show up on time,to get to their seats. Then,some people talk loudly during a performance. Heckling the performers is one thing — that is healthy in some situations perhaps,because that is the audience demanding more from the performers. But,chatting during a performance is poor behaviour,” says theatre actor Bikram Ghosh. During a performance of Taramandal by Tadpole Repertory,he recalls how a woman’s phone rang three times within five minutes. “It was a very small theatre,so actors and audience were very close to each other. I tried to carry on but at some point I got irritated,so I got distracted and lost my lines. I stood on stage in silence for almost two minutes until I remembered my lines and carried on. I confiscated her phone for the rest of the performance”,he says. The audience is a vital part of any performance. If only,they would take their roles seriously.

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