Over the past 48 hours, the culture pages in England have been filled with reports which are all variants of the same story: “Walkouts abound at The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Marat/Sade.” I first spotted this on Sunday in The Daily Mail and since then, the BBC, The Guardian and The Telegraph, among many others, have all piled on.

Marat/Sade, while an acknowledged modern classic, is a challenging work with content that surely doesn’t appeal to all audiences. So it shouldn’t really surprise anyone that a play about the Marquis de Sade might provoke squirming and even early exits; I suspect that Doug Wright’s Quills, also about de Sade’s incarceration at Charenton, sent some people fleeing from assorted theatres as well. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if artists involved in various productions of both of these plays see the odd hasty retreat as a sign that they’re succeeding, a badge of honor.

So whether the current press frenzy is a result of an opportunity to portray theatre as transgressive and dangerous during a time when arts support is already challenged, or if it’s a case of schadenfreude to see the fortunes of the august RSC brought into question, or if the show is in fact deeply off-putting – or simply not a good production – I really can’t say. But the reports have set tongues wagging on this side of the Atlantic as well, prompting online chat about whether it’s right to walk out of a show, whether anyone has personally walked out of a show, and so on.  As this seems to be snowballing, I cannot resist sharing a few thoughts and admissions.

Let me start by saying that I have worked on shows that have prompted audience walkouts – and I mean real walkouts, during the show, not politely at intermission. Off-hand, I recall people exiting mid-scene from two productions in particular at Hartford Stage: a 1986 production of Sam Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime and a 1990 interpretation of Büchner’s Woyzeck by director Richard Foreman (which ran, in total, only 70 minutes, but some folks just couldn’t wait to escape). As staff of an institution where I was, in part, responsible for drawing in audiences, this was troubling. But given the artistic choices, it was also inevitable; we did our utmost to prepare the audience for what they would be experiencing before they went in, and then had to let the chips fall where they may.

I consider the mid-scene walk out to be a very strong statement; it is at best impolite, at worst a middle finger thrust upwards at all involved (even if the director, designers, author and company leadership aren’t there to see it first-hand in most cases). During these plays, the people I saw leave made no attempt to do so surreptitiously; they haughtily stood and marched indignantly up the aisles, determined that others would register their statement. In one instance during Tooth of Crime, actor David Patrick Kelly (who was, coincidentally, also our Woyzeck), costumed with a pistol, paused the action as one couple left loudly and prominently – and leveled his weapon at their backs until they were completely gone, to the profound amusement of all who remained, which was the majority of the audience.

If we believe theatre to be a conversation with an audience, and at times a provocative or confrontational one, then perhaps the walk-out isn’t something to look down upon. It certainly beats staying and heckling the cast for material they did not create, but only take part in interpreting. It is perhaps the one opportunity the audience has to express displeasure during a performance, beyond stony silence (which can mean just about anything); theatre audiences do not have the outlet of booing, as opera seems to, but even then the “commentary” is reserved for curtain calls.

I have never walked out of a show mid-scene, or even between scenes, but I will confess to having quietly departed at intermission a few times over the years (never during my tenure at the American Theatre Wing, where such an action, if known, could have had repercussions in connection with The Tony Awards). But there have been times when the lure of television or bed have been stronger than the appeal of a second act, though I am not proud of this; in one case, I left because I was – for perhaps the only time in my life – offended on behalf of my religion and had no desire to watch it subjected to more ridicule. I have no doubt that had I willed myself to stay for some of those second acts, my ultimate opinion of the show concerned might have shifted, but at these times, I wasn’t patient enough to wait and see.

Was I taking the coward’s way out, rather than making a statement? I don’t think so, since every actor I’ve ever spoken with tells me how acutely aware they are, from the stage, of what goes on in the house. A full house in act one followed by one dotted with empty seats in act two speaks volumes. But I bet it’s preferable to audience members fidgeting in their seats, repeatedly checking their watches or glaring at their companions from time to time.

The problem with the walk-out, be it ostentatious or subtle, is that, as I alluded to earlier, it rarely reaches the people to whom the opinion is most properly expressed. They experience it, if at all, only through a stage manager or house manager’s report, and it is the house manager, box office personnel and even volunteer ushers who absorb the displeasure first-hand. Though it feels declarative as it happens, it is a fairly impotent act.

There is a corollary act, more acceptable but no less pointless: the withholding of applause at a curtain call. I have, as I know others have, at times been so miserable at a production that I am disinclined to applaud. But if it is the story, or the production concept which dismays me, withholding applause insults only the actors, who have just spent several hours telling me a story in the manner they’ve been asked to. I may feel better, but it is ineffective – the loss of my two hands hardly register in the overall decibel level of an ovation, nor does remaining seated while the rest of the audience rises to its feet visibly alter a standing horde.

I am not writing to endorse the walkout, since it is an expression of opinion that is misdirected and often falls on deaf ears. I feel for the actors in the current Marat/Sade, since surely they are giving their all, regardless of whether they in fact feel good about the show. But I cannot help but feel that a reduced audience is better than an actively hostile one.

What would I like people to take away from this? That sometimes a walkout is just a walkout, and it can be a sign of failure or even success. It really shouldn’t rise to the level of news coverage, let alone international attention, unless the audience is so decimated after the interval that half the crowd has fled, night after night after night. If you feel you must leave, at least wait for intermission, or if you must go sooner, a scene break. You owe that courtesy to the actors and your fellow audience members; remember, this is much more than changing a channel or stopping a film midstream at home. But if you really want to let the right people know what you think, write a letter or send an e-mail to the producer or company leadership; even tweets may never reach the decision makers.

No one should feel compelled to be miserable at the theatre. Leave if you must – that’s your right. But walk, don’t run.

  • October 25, 2011
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