Yesterday afternoon, I saw Opera North’s magnificent production of Carousel at the Grand Theatre in Leeds. I love the Grand Theatre – it’s one of the most charming of Britain’s major touring theatres, and the auditorium is truly lovely – and I love the show. I’ve written a separate post praising the production to the skies; it should have been a glorious experience. It wasn’t, quite.

The problem, yet again, was disruptive behaviour from somewhere in the auditorium – in this case, exacerbated by the fact that this production is all but unamplified, which means there’s a far greater potential for what I suppose we must call noise pollution. Most of the audience, once they’d clicked into concentrating on a production that is significantly less loud than your average overamplified big musical, sat and listened very intently. A couple of mobile phones rang – there was no pre-show announcement about switching them off, and there should have been – and there was the occasional sound of crinkling candy wrappers. The biggest source of disruption, though, came from a rather more delicate source.

Somewhere in the part of the theatre where I was sitting (the dress circle, I was in the back row), several seats over to my right and not visible from where I was sitting, there was what sounded like an adult woman with some kind of severe mental disability. I never saw this person, so that’s an assumption. What I do know is that most of the show was accompanied by a stream of noise from this person – low (but not quiet) moaning, brief louder wailing, snatches of singing, and a sound that resembled a cross between throat-clearing and blowing a raspberry. I have no idea where this person was sitting, other than in one of seven rows of seats somewhere to my right; I assume she was not unaccompanied. Particularly in a very nearly unamplified production, this was significantly disruptive, and I was not the only person who remarked on it at the interval. I don’t know if anybody said anything to the front of house staff at the interval; I didn’t, partly because, God knows, I can’t help but feel for both this person and whoever was with her, and partly because I couldn’t narrow down the source of the sound any closer than a block of about 150 seats. The disruption in the first half, though, was severe enough that a competent house management should have noticed it and dealt with it off their own bat; evidently they did not, because these sounds continued all through the second half as well.

As much as I feel for this person, and for the people with her, there’s a huge disrespect for the rest of the paying audience in evidence – not on the part of the woman with the disability (the sounds definitely did not come from a child), but from whoever was with her. If you took a child to that kind of event, and they made the kind of noise that would disrupt the experience for other members of the audience, you’d take them out. If you heard a child making that kind of disruptive noise, it would be easier to talk to front of house about it.

At the back of my head, there was the terrifying notion that to make a complaint about this person would somehow be to suggest that people with disabilities should be locked away, and of course that’s not what I think at all. But I do think that anybody attending a live performance (and in this case, I specifically mean the carer/parent/whatever who accompanied this woman to the theatre) should have enough respect for the rest of the audience that they take quick, decisive steps to minimise any behaviour that might disrupt the show for other patrons, and that a competent front-of-house management should pay attention to what is going on in an auditorium during a performance and, if necessary, take action before being prompted by another ticket-holder. Yesterday afternoon’s experience fell considerably short of that. Since these noises continued unimpeded through more or less the entire performance, it’s impossible not to conclude that whoever was accompanying this individual didn’t have any respect or consideration for the rest of the audience. Given that the front-of-house staff did not appear to notice the problem, much less intervene, I’m afraid it’s also difficult not to conclude that their attitude towards their paying customers is not quite what it should be. Now, true, I didn’t complain – but the level of noise was such that I shouldn’t have had to.

Don’t get me wrong – I loved the production. And, probably, in this instance, I should have been less squeamish about coming forward and notifying front-of-house that there was a problem (me and a few hundred other people), and it’s certainly not as if either noisy audience behaviour or inept front-of-house management are at all unusual in British theatres. But going to the theatre and experiencing a show without encountering any kind of bad behaviour from other audience members is becoming the exception rather than the rule, and that’s not good enough, and I’m afraid the front-of-house management have to shoulder some of the responsibility. Theatre tickets are expensive to the degree that it is simply not acceptable for a front-of-house management to adopt a laissez-faire attitude towards disruptive behaviour, whatever the source. I’ve done the job myself, and this is not a pleasant aspect of it, but part of the house management’s job is to ensure that everyone in the auditorium experiences the performance without any disruption from other members of the audience, whether or not anyone makes a complaint. Yesterday afternoon, the front-of-house management in the Grand Theatre in Leeds did not do their job, and their customers deserved better.


4 thoughts on “Overheard

  1. Pingback: Welcome to 1945. | Saving the word, one apostrophe at a time.

  2. Goodness. It is such a difficult one. I have a severely handicapped teenage son who (occasionally) makes noises at the theatre. And i am someone who goes to the theatre frequently – sometimes with, sometimes without my son. But, when my son comes, he usually loves the experience and is quiet. If he is noisy, I take him out – as I did during ’42nd Street’ at Curve last Christmas. I think the point you make about ‘paying customer’ is a valid one. Of course, the disabled person you heard was a paying customer too – their carer probably wasn’t, but they were. And they do have a right to be at the performance. Of course, I would also say that you have a right to enjoy the performance without noise pollution. I don’t have any answers, I’m afraid. But – I do think that this issue needs to be more open…it affects a lot of people – theatre management, carers, theatre lovers. And we need to talk about it. Not sure how.

  3. It *is* really difficult, isn’t it? And yes, it’s made all the more so by the fact that disability is something that, as a society, we are not particularly good at discussing.

    I think most people (me most certainly included) are willing to cut a family group that includes someone with a disability a fair amount of slack when it comes to things like this, and I certainly want theatre to be accessible to as many people as possible. But there’s no way the carer/parent with this woman yesterday afternoon could not have known that these sounds were disrupting the performance for a significant number of people. I don’t know the answer either; I know that it’s neither easy nor pleasant for the front-of-house management to ask someone to leave a theatre because they (or a member of their party) are behaving disruptively. I know that better than most people, actually, because I’ve done it, more than once, and it’s certainly not a part of the job I enjoyed.

    I do think there’s a point where the rights of the rest of the audience trump the rights of any individual, and I think this woman’s parent/carer passed that point yesterday afternoon (at the very least, since these sounds had continued more or less constantly through the first half, I think they passed that point when they returned for the second act – up until the end of the first act, they get some extra slack because it can be difficult to help someone with a disability to get out of an auditorium safely while the house lights are down). Or, to put it in terms of receipts – one paying customer’s needs, vs. a few hundred other paying customers’ needs. In those terms, it’s a simple enough choice, and both the parent/carer and the theatre’s staff got it wrong.

  4. Yes. If Thomas is noisy/has a seizure etc during the first part of a performance, we simply don’t go back after the interval. And I would usually take him to things that are ‘family friendly’ anyway so there is going to be a fair bit of ambient noise around us from others. I was mortified when he was noisy during 42nd Street! My own particular bugbear is the issue of accessible Youth Theatre – disabled Youth drama groups rarely do performances – they do those horrible and meaningless things, ‘shares’!! Thoma was born to perform! Proper Youth Theatres do performances – but don’t want a severely learning disabled teenager along – even though he could manage to be part of the ensemble and he is as passionate about theatre as I am. All very difficult!

    Incidentally, I phoned Curve Theatre, here in Leicester, earlier to book some tickets for the thoroughly child friendly World Premiere of Finding Neverland. I got our usual Carer’s Ticket for me and, whilst discusssing access arrangements with them, was SO tempted to ask them what they do in a situation such as we’ve been discussing. But I didn’t feel able to!! It is such a no-go topic!

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