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The Sound of Silence

Last Sunday, at the closing performance of the play in which I was appearing, I lived through one of the classic actors’ nightmares. I was hissed. By the audience. I said my lines, did the actions I was directed to do, and was greeted by a vicious burst of sibilance, the leading edge of a massive storm front of hatred coming at me from the audience. Fortunately, this outburst wasn’t an expression of disapproval towards me personally, or my thespian abilities. Far from it. Like the mustache-twirling performers of the melodramas of old, I was receiving an odd sort of complement from the audience, acknowledging my skill in performing one of the most despised of modern villains.

A loud cell-phone user in a theater.

At the opening of Howard Zuckerman’s The Silencer, as the audience enters the theater, there’s an actor planted in the front row. (That would be me.) The Silencer is about a self-styled vigilante who targets rude and obnoxious cell phone users; to get the audience in the spirit of things, before the lights come up on the action, they’re forced to spend a few minutes listening to that audience plant (again, me) yammering away obliviously. I continue talking over what appears to be a standard announcement about turning off your cell phones, as the lights begin to dim. Of course, this is scripted, and the unseen voice begins berating me for my rudeness. I proceed to get up, scream and protest the outrage of being called out like this, and storm out, all the while being as self-absorbed and obnoxious as possible. This is the part where the audience hisses, of course.

And why shouldn’t they? There’s nothing more apt to destroy the theater-going experience than a loud and obnoxious audience member thinking they’re more important than the action on the stage. This opening scene was built with that in mind, I leaned into that in the performance, and got the desired (and appropriate) response. Good job all around, right?

Here’s the thing, though. Since there would be no point in my doing my whole improvised phone call before most of the audience was seated, I only began about five minutes or so before the start of the play. So the audience was only listening to me during those five minutes. In the ten minutes prior, as the house opened and the spectators took their seats, I was listening to them.

And they sounded exactly like me.

Not every single one of them, of course. But in those ten minutes as I geared myself up, I heard all manner of boisterous conversations and loud guffaws, most having nothing to do with the show we were about to see. All manner of unasked-for opinions, of inappropriate questions, of general overbearing loudness. And I’m not singling out the audience of this specific show (they were nice enough to come to see us, after all). As luck would have it, the last show I did, Village My Home, also started with me as an audience plant as the house opened. I’m not sure how this pattern got started, but it’s been going on for a while now. And while my sample size is still admittedly small, the overbearing behavior I’ve observed has been consistent across the board.

But Michael! I hear you protest. That was all happening before the show started! People have every right to their own private conversations before the show starts! It’s only if they continue them after the show begins that they’re bothering anybody else! And who are you to judge, anyway?

Well, the last question’s a fair point, though this is my blog and I’ll judge if I want to. But as to the rest of it, I remind you that the whole scene I describe above is meant to simulate a normal pre-show announcement, before my little outburst happens. Which means that as far as the audience knew last Sunday, the show hadn’t started yet.

And still, they hissed me. Even though my behavior wasn’t materially different from their own.

Does the dimming of a particular light make a loud conversation more obtrusive all of a sudden? (After all, some of us just want to read our programs in peace.) If the disruptive behavior is quiet – say, leaving the theater to get some air, then using a smartphone’s battery to light one’s way back to their seat – is it somehow less distracting than if a sound had been made? (Since I noticed that precise scenario from the stage during each show, and was therefore distracted by it, I’m going to say no here.) And the most crucial question of all - is it rude behavior that people object to, or merely the fact that somebody other than themselves is committing it? If it was them that the offstage voice was addressing, would they be shamed into silence, or would they shout with defiant rage themselves?

Considering that in the Saturday audience, somebody shouted out “Yeah! You tell ‘em!” in support of my character at this moment in the show, I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that question.

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