Robert Trussell: Theater should never be described as ‘nice’

06/12/2014 1:27 PM

06/14/2014 8:24 PM

Everyone is just so polite these days.

About the rudest behavior you can encounter in a Kansas City theater is waves of coughing and hacking that ripple across the audience or snoring from someone who has literally gone to sleep.

The former tends to occur only during the winter months. The latter doesn’t happen often.

But I’ve never seen anyone boo a performance. Or hiss. Or do much of anything beyond laugh at the jokes in a comedy.

The actors are equally restrained, never breaking their professional composure, even when live bats soar around them on the Starlight Theatre stage or police sirens threaten to drown them out at the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival.

But a recent incident in Santa Clarita, Calif., reminds us that there’s an older tradition that still comes to life at unexpected moments.

At a performance of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” the Tennessee Williams play about repressed homosexuality in the Mississippi Delta, the actor playing Big Daddy broke character, left the stage and physically confronted a loudmouth who was shouting homophobic slurs.

According to news reports, John Lacy walked to the edge of the stage and demanded to know who had twice shouted “fag.”

The allegedly inebriated theatergoer rose to his feet and identified himself, at which point Lacy left the stage and shoved the man, who fell to the floor. The man was then hustled out of the theater by others.

“I gave him a little shove to let him know I was there,” Lacy told a television reporter, “and because of the alcohol, he went down pretty easily.”

Fired from production

According to Lacy, theater management fired him after the performance — which reportedly earned a standing ovation. Then the actor playing Brick, Big Daddy’s son, quit in solidarity. The production was shut down.

The producers issued a bureaucratic statement stating that “hate speech” and “racial, discriminatory and homophobic utterances” would not be tolerated, but it wasn’t terribly convincing after axing Lacy.

They could have gone another way: Exploit the incident to their advantage, praise the actor for his principled stand and promote the theater authentically as a place were intolerance is not tolerated. Might have sold out the rest of the run.

As theater brawls go, this one was pretty lightweight. But it does tap into an long tradition of hot-headed actors confronting spectators. Or each other.

At a recent performance of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” Neil Patrick Harris shouted back at a woman who yelled out: “I love you, Neil!” Harris’ response, delivered in character as the transgender rocker Hedwig, was, “I’m doing something up here!” (He may have added a ripe four-syllable noun at the end of his put-down, according to reports).

The famed British actor Nicol Williamson, appearing on Broadway in the early ’90s as the ghost of John Barrymore in “I Hate Hamlet,” one night berated fellow actor Evan Handler in front of the audience: “Put some life into it! Use your head! Give it more life!”

Later, during a dueling scene, he whacked Handler on the back with the flat of his sword, prompting the younger actor to walk off. At that point, Williamson reportedly turned to the audience and said: “Well, should I sing?”

This sort of thing wasn’t particularly out of character for Williamson, who once punched producer David Merrick.

History of hysterics

Look back over the last couple of centuries and you can find much less restrained examples of theater folk losing their temper — often with deadly results. Playwright Ben Jonson, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, killed actor Gabriel Spenser in a sword duel.

Charles Macklin, a star of the 18th-century London stage, once killed an actor as they quarreled backstage about which of them would wear a certain wig during a performance.

In the 19th century, American tragedian Edwin Forrest, known for his brawling ways, engaged in a feud with British star William Charles Macready, which in 1849 triggered the Astor Place Riot in New York.

At least 25 people may have died in a massive street brawl. At question was whether Forrest or Macready was the more skilled Shakespearean actor.

The backdrop was the anti-immigrant sentiment of the so-called nativists, but think about it: A riot revolving around a question of aesthetics had to be quelled by the militia. Can anyone imagine such a thing today?

No, these days folks tend to go the theater the way the pious go to church. We line the pews, do our penance and then go home, perhaps stopping off for an infusion of sugar and caffeine (or a stiff drink) along the way.

Local actors tend to be a collegial bunch, but if there were a feud, it would never happen in public. More likely would take the form of passive-aggressive gossip, delivered in hushed tones with plenty of room for plausible deniability.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not advocating public disorder. But sometimes it’s good to remember that the theater was once a noisy, rowdy art form that thrived on outsized personalities and spectators who weren’t afraid to speak their minds. The dialogue between artist and audience seemed more honest.

As I say, Lacy’s decision to confront an obnoxious theatergoer wasn’t particularly dramatic. But the fact that it generated headlines shows us how rare such confrontations are.

No, these days we all tend to mind our Ps and Qs. But I see nothing wrong with a well-timed boo or hiss if a theatergoer really doesn’t like what he or she is watching.

Nor would I complain if an actor told a texting spectator to take his or her smartphone and put it where the sun don’t shine.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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