Audience plants: The scourge of the American theater
By John Moore
Jan. 8, 2013
It’s been a year since I’ve been on the record with a critical theater review, and I am (perhaps ill-advisedly) celebrating my anniversary of not having to go on the record saying something that might unilaterally anger the entire local theater community … by going on the record saying something that might unilaterally anger the entire local theater community. But damn the torpedoes, someone has to speak out for the people, people!
This is a rant about my biggest pet peeve in all of theater. Worse than ringing cell phones. Worse than old ladies draping their coats over their chairbacks and into my lap. Worse than candy wrappers, open-mouthed gum-chewing and the occasional production that goes through its paces with complete seeming ambivalence. OK, not worse than that.
Audience plants are the scourge of the American theater. And I’m here to tell all of you directors and producers out there that when you plant a seed, er, seat, in your audience, you only succeed in burying your production six feet into the ground.
You know what I’m talking about: The impossibly over-eager audience-member (often the director himself), who starts leading rounds of maniacal clapping two beats before every single scene or song in a show is even over.
This ploy is meant to cajole or trick the audience into believing that perhaps something remarkable has just occurred, whether it actually has or not, and you should be joining in on the fervid acknowledgement of that fact. And you just know the person is a plant because anyone who is experiencing a powerful moment in the theater for the first time could not possibly have processed an honest reaction that quickly. And because the clatter is emanating high in the balcony, or deep in a vom near the exit. You can spot a plant a mile away. They laugh louder (and more quickly) at the jokes, even when the line isn’t even really a joke. Before the last line of the heroine’s intimate ballad is even sung, these vermin are smacking their hands together like they are crawling with red ants.
Whether audiences should even be clapping at scene changes is another rant for another day, but here’s one thing I can tell all you directors: When you plant someone in the audience to lead the clapping and cheering, YOU DESTROY THE AUTHENTICITY OF OUR OWN PERSONAL RESPONSE TO WHAT JUST HAPPENED. And not only do I refuse to participate in it, you instead instill feelings of enmity and contempt deep inside me, rather than appreciation. So you are working against your own best interests.
When I hear a song, and it moves me, my hands instinctively move to clap together at a reasonable decimal. But before I even get my hands off my lap, the overeager rat-a-tat-tat begins, and that automatically sends my hands back to my sides. I don’t want to be a part of it. So I don’t clap at all. I cross my arms and seethe a little bit. And that’s not fair to the actors who deserve at least some honest response. But I just can’t do it when I feel like I’m being led off a plank into shark-infested waters at gunpoint. I want to take the fake-clappers’ hands and grind them into a blender.
And that’s not what live theater is supposed to be all about, now, is it?
Here’s a thought: Trust your actors. Trust your audience. If there is a silence where you think there should be noise, consider it just may be that silence is the most appropriate response for the moment. It doesn’t mean we aren’t appreciative. It means we are reflecting, processing. You’ll get your appreciation in the end. Denver audiences are generous to a fault that way.
I just don’t understand why directors and producers are so afraid of honest quiet. All I know is that when you create an artificial response, you destroy the art you hoped to create.
Now … knock it off!
This rant was brought to you by the silent majority who really appreciate what you do. Believe us. We just weren’t on the cheerleading squad in high school.