Monday, June 2, 2014

Heckle or Dr. Jekyll

So the 'internets' are all abuzz over a prematurely closed production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Repertory East Playhouse in CA. For those lucky enough not to be plugged in - in short-  some idiots were yelling homophobic remarks at Brick (or the Paul Newman character as many news outlets so intelligently reported) and during Act II, the actor playing Big Daddy had enough of it and broke character and tried to eject or decked the hecklers (depending on which report you read). And some heroic audience member (likely a member of Actors Equity who surely has added this credit to his resume) bravely threw them out after the incident and then seems to have made a full time job talking to the press about it.

So What? The whole purpose of the arts is to provoke a response in its audience. A production of Cat that did more than entertain should be applauded. Clearly, we don't condone hate speech, but at the same time, it's the artists job to expose things swept under the rugs, unknown, ignored or deemed unimportant. We'd like to think we live in a world of equal rights, where people are treated the same, but as the play shows, that wasn't and still isn't the case.

There are 2 kinds of hecklers- and maybe this just was the drunken asshole trying to get a rise out of people.  In that case, I am reminded of Stella Adler's fabled story of the touring production of Awake and Sing!  At one point when a character remarked the house doesn't even have an orange, the actors were pelted with oranges. Adler stepped to the front of the stage and proclaimed, "It's up to you ladies and gentlemen out there to protect these actors." And they did.  Incidents like this are part of what makes the theatre so special - REAL LIFE EXPERIENCES - communion between the action on the stage and in the audience. These aren't ideal, but it's what make the theatre completely different from the people that yell out in the movie theater, "LOOK OUT BEHIND YOU!' Ideally they would all be ejected by a 7 foot bouncer, but in the theatre, there's the chance to spin their interjections into the tapestry of the performance. (That is the most pretentious thing I've ever said, but I stand by it.) They can't teach that in acting school or even through years of performance experience - but a theatre audience influences the show every night - (Maybe we should punch them when they don't laugh!). Embrace it and create a unique and powerful night. It's one of the biggest assets the theatre has going for it!

The other type of heckler is the true racist/homophobe/bigot/asshole.  Again, it's not ideal, but their outbursts solidify why we do our work as artists. During the closing moments of ReGroup's recent revival of Paul Green's 1931 play The House of Connelly, the two former slave women murder the new bride and heir to the Connelly farm.  During this scene, an audience member started shouting, "I hate niggers." The audience started yelling at her and some smacked her with their playbills. Yet the actors kept on course without violence. Though tears were shed and feelings were hurt all around in the company, including my own, the larger goal prevailed. We're here to tell a story that affects people. The response the play and the performances solicited only shows that the issues dealt with in an 83 year old play are still alive and unwell. It was unsettling and uncomfortable, but it struck the audience to the core.

At their bests, artists are here to tell a story, to communicate, and hopefully make a change, however minor, in the way the audience thinks. Through the communion of actors and audience, there is a unique experience every night.  While I don't condone hecklers, I'm saddened by those who have made the incident into a grab at a headline instead of using what the audience was giving to make the performance even more resonant.

Think of our greatest talents? Surely Maureen Stapleton, Olivier, Jessica Tandy, Brando, Newman, Duse, Geraldine Page, etc etc etc all had nights like this - but I don't recall any stories of smack-downs.  USE WHAT YOU ARE GIVEN AND MAKE IT PART OF THAT NIGHT'S DIALOGUE WITH THE AUDIENCE.

(And if you're going to beat up someone in the audience, why not start with the critics who know nothing?!)