A steady ring, or why is this theatre news?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: theatre is a living, breathing animal. Whether you’re doing interactive improv on the street or story-driven dramatic fourth-wall realism on stage, there’s one thing that remains constant, theatre inhabits and deals with the space it is in. That means you can’t ignore the room when it makes itself seen or heard.

This is true even if your story is set in a place far away from where it is being staged. When an unexpected noise rings out from the audience, a confused or restless patron wanders onstage or some object gets thrown that deflects attention, it becomes part of the scene and the actors have to deal with it.

Part of the scene?

I remember seeing a production of Billy Bishop Goes to War in high school. The group I was with was a particularly rowdy bunch and some of them started throwing small objects on stage. Once the throwing became apparent, the actor, Bruce Dinsmore, completely in character as a lounge singer (he played several characters in the show) retorted that “the next person who threw something won’t be coming back anymore” which was the refrain of the song he was singing, to wild applause.

My recollection of the exact line may be a little hazy, but the point of the story is that Dinsmore did just what an actor should in the situation: deal with it, in character. To fail to do so would result in a break in the suspension of disbelief far greater than that caused by the audience intrusion.

A colleague once told me about how a confused old lady wandered on stage at the Centaur. The actors froze and waited for an usher to escort her off, then went on with the play as if nothing had happened.

I can only imagine what this might have looked like actors freezing like someone had pressed pause on the remote controlling the play. It’s not a TV show, it’s not a film, its theatre and those actors just froze mid-scene because the scene didn’t stop when the woman wandered onstage, only the other characters did.

When a cellphone rang out during a screening performance of A Steady Rain on Broadway last week, actor Hugh Jackman (yes, Wolverine) did the right thing. He asked the call recipient to “answer it” and kept talking about it until the ringing stopped.

He didn’t stop the show as some media reports have it, but rather allowed it to continue, incorporating the ringing cellphone into the scene. He didn’t break character as other reports have it, he even kept his character’s Chicago accent on throughout the exchange. There’s no real surprise here as Jackman is a seasoned stage actor and a good one at that.

The real shock here is how many people in the media see a character as being just what is written and theatre as being just what is planned. Anyone who interprets an actor staying in character and incorporating an unexpected noise in the audience into the scene as breaking character and stopping the show just doesn’t get theatre at all.

The fact that TMZ considers this news is fair, considering they’re a tabloid show that would probably consider Jackman getting a haircut news as well. The fact that some are using this to foster debate over ways to get the audience to turn off their cellphones in the theatre is fair play as well.

What’s not right here is that some of the theatre media and much of the media in general are treating this incident as news at all.

One comment

  • That clip was great. Now, if people had been throwing things on the stage, I think Hugh might have acted differently.

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