Post 233

Debacle: Reflections on a Curtain Call

A conversation is a dialogue. A conversation is not a monologue.

You would think that an actor would know the difference between a dialogue and a monologue, but actor Brandon V. Dixon described his on-stage speech as a “conversation.”

When President Elect Donald Trump asked the cast of “Hamilton” to apologize, Dixon responded with the following: “conversation is not harassment sir.”

Trump asked for the apology because when Vice President Elect Mike Pence went to a theatre performance on November 18, 2016 by the name of “Hamilton,” the actor Dixon addressed Pence from the stage during the curtain call. Pence was seated in the theatre and Dixon was on stage.

In other words, Dixon was prepared and Pence was not.

In other words, Dixon had a microphone and lights, and Pence did not.

That was not a conversation. You can call it a conversation only if you stretch the definition of the word “conversation” so far that it encompasses almost every type of human expression. If that address was a conversation, then the homily I just heard at the 5:00 o’clock Mass today was also a conversation. If that was a conversation, then what I write to you now could presumably be called “a conversation.”

Man. Some people should not write their own lines.

I do not mind theatre being used as a vehicle for advocating social change, and I do not mind script writers criticizing and condemning those whom they believe are in the wrong. Why would I? Perhaps this does not happen often enough. In any case, playwrights and screen writers typically cannot help but incorporate and promote their own world views, as do all users of Facebook and all the people in chat rooms and forums all over the world. Everyone views himself as an expert on humanity, being human.

Those who have defended Dixon’s speech in the name of The Rights of Theatre misconstrue, probably deliberately, the criticism of those who criticize what Dixon did. They are fighting on a different front, where there is no enemy. Nobody was saying that theatre cannot be bold and brazen and confrontational and challenging and enlightening. It can be. Even Broadway theatre could, in theory, be like that.

Go ahead, script writers, do your darnedest. Write me a script that moves me and makes me fall in love with your characters and your ideas.

Some want to pretend that those who criticize Dixon are attacking the freedom of theatre to challenge the populace and the politicians. But they are pretending, because those who criticize Dixon are not saying that theatre should not criticize individuals, institutions or ideas. It very well can, and I don’t even mind if they mention the individuals by name, but this is to be done via the script, and not via actor-to-audience impromptu speeches. The method matters.

In a theatre production, there is a special relationship between the actors and the audience. There is an element of trust which should not be violated.

When I go to see a play, I will purchase my ticket and take my seat, expecting that the actors will deliver their lines and go through the motions of their performance. For my part, I will pay attention and not distract the actors or other theatre patrons from the performance. That’s the way we do things nowadays. It is the cultural expectation and it is civilized. Don’t talk to me about how “in Shakespeare’s day,” the patrons used to do this and that and the other thing. I’m talking about the norm for our day.

Of course, there are special types of theatre which are improvised, and anyone attending may expect that the actors will come up with lines in reaction to current events or even in response to the audience reactions or behaviour. They will speak their mind, and we’ll see that some people are funny and witty and that others should stay out of improv.

Nevertheless, even with improvisational theatre, there are still limits, and if the audience is going to be engaged, then this must be done on a strictly volunteer basis. Let those who want to be involved volunteer themselves.

As for the others who haven’t volunteered themselves, leave them in the anonymous safety and security of the darkened theatre. Do not single out any of your guests without their consent and foreknowledge. Even if you have a message which you consider innocent, such as “Happy Birthday,” do not spring it upon a member of your audience during a public performance without consulting with him in advance.

Using polite words does not give you a free pass. Some have defended Dixon’s words because they were not offensive. I agree — they were rather unremarkable, in my books — but that is besides the point. Even a message which you consider innocuous takes on an entirely different flavour when it comes in a setting where you would never expect such a message.

That is why a marriage proposal written on a front lawn with Christmas lights is noteworthy. That is why a “Will you forgive me?” message written on a billboard would make people look twice.

My cousin once paid for billboard advertising to let his former girlfriend know that he was now “new and improved.” It sure caught her attention! Unfortunately, when she decided that she’d give him a second chance, he changed his mind.

But anyway, when an unsuspecting audience member takes his seat in the audience, give him your show, to the best of your ability. Other than that, leave him in peace.

There are so many reasons for this. Part of the reason has to do with the inequality in the arrangement between the actors and the audience. The actors are on their game; they are psychologically prepared to speak and to perform. The audience members have a different mindset. They expect to be one of the crowd. Even a famous person has an expectation that when the lights go down and the spotlight is on the actors telling their story, all eyes will be on the show.

And to continue this theme of inequality, the actors are more ‘at home.’ They know the story inside and out, and they know their theatre. They know when to expect this music and that sound effect and they know that the lights will go dark here and the fog machine will be activated there. The creating of an atmosphere is so much of what theatre is all about. You could say it’s a house of mirrors, where patrons are just a little bit lost. It is something of a foreign world, as it should be.

Finally, the actors in a play are the story-tellers; they are the authority in the room. They are the ones with the scoop. They hold the cards; they have the information. The audience members participate as the recipients of that information, not as the authority. All the theatrical devices are employed in order to lend credibility and weight to both the story and the story teller.

This, incidentally, is a large part of the reason actors enjoy acting. Someone else writes interesting and persuasive lines, and the actor finds that people want to hear him saying them. You can make an audience fall in love with almost anybody, provided that you give them the right lines and moves.

I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen people rapturous about actors who were 180 degrees different from the characters they portray. As a writer, it is a bittersweet feeling.

In the past, actors were not held in such high esteem, but nowadays, they often are. In any case, by the time of the curtain call, when the cast steps forward to receive credit from the audience, the actors are often glowing. They feel like heroes and often the audience perceives them as heroic.

At that moment, what is a mere mortal audience member by comparison? Who is that dot who has been silent and in the dark for the past two hours?

Do you now address him with gusto, as you stand there in your costume and your eyeliner?

Do you now decide that your moment for fame has arrived, and that your voice must be heard?

Is your audience “captive”?

Stop and think, euphoric Broadway actor.

The audience member is always important, and is not a passive entity who can rightly be subjected to anything of your choosing, by virtue of the fact that he chose to attend a performance that you participated in, organized or wrote.

(And I extend most of what I say to other types of entertainment. How wrong it was for Chumbawamba’s vocalist Danbert Nobacon to pour water upon the head of a deputy Prime Minister who had come to see the show. He publicly humiliated his guest. How wrong it was for Sinéad O’Connor to destroy a photograph of Pope John Paul II when she was invited to sing on Saturday Night Live. She deceived her host, who had no advance knowledge of her plan because she had held up a different photo during the rehearsal and did not tear it.)

So actor, do not think you tower over the audience member just because you stand on the stage in the limelight and he doesn’t. Don’t let your ego get ahead of you.

All actors, writers and theatre producers should be honoured by each and every soul who attends their performances.

It is an honour to have people dedicate their life’s precious minutes to coming out to your show, and you are, in some sense, indebted to those who are watching.

The audience member is a guest in your house, and I say it is fitting that the area where the audience sits is called, in English, “the house.” Technicians talk about “the house lights,” and that means the lights above the theatre seats.

You have invited your audience member to see your show, and he has accepted that invitation. There is a contract and a trust, and those attending a performance rightly have an expectation of physical and psychological safety.

To depart from the script in order to single out an audience member without warning is a violation of that trust. It can be alarming to hear oneself addressed directly from the stage because you have come to see a play, not a public lecture directed to you personally.

I would even go so far as to say that this should extend to those who are backstage. The Master of Ceremonies is violating a trust if she surprises the director, by calling her onstage without forewarning. It does not matter if a bouquet of roses is waiting. People should always be forewarned before being thrust into the spotlight.

I have previously condemned President Obama’s ridiculing of Trump while Trump was seated as a guest at an official function. That attack was offensive and reflects poorly upon President Obama. President Obama was the darling and the hero that evening, and had the authority of his office behind him. He was prepared with microphone, video clips and lighting. The guests at that dinner laughed politely at each and every one of his jokes. And they obliged with laughter when he made jokes at Trump’s expense. Was it funny? Perhaps. Was it appropriate? No.

If it were a public debate, that would be different. That would be an equal duel. And there are other venues for expressing differing opinions — there are newspaper editorials, letters to the editor, magazine articles, columns in newspapers and magazines, blogs, cartoons, television satires and movie and theatre scripts. There’s Twitter and Facebook and hey, you can even put a sign on your lawn, provided that you don’t live in St. Albert.

My point is that context matters. If you invite a guest into your home, you have a special responsibility towards him that you would not have if you were both at a restaurant. And in a similar way, if you are a guest in someone’s home, you have duties towards that person in addition to any of your existing duties.

Could you imagine someone screaming at her host? How outrageous! And yet I have both seen and heard of such things. That type of behaviour, which is already highly problematic, is worse in the context of a host-guest relationship. For that reason, I encourage those with explosive relatives and friends to plan get-togethers in a neutral zone, such as the front lobby of the local police station.

Context matters.

As for the booing of Pence by some audience members, that is a different matter, because in that case, there is equality. In that case, both the jeering and the jeered are spectators; they are on equal ground, literally and figuratively.

Booing is a rather inarticulate way of expressing oneself, but perhaps sometimes it is warranted. It is an expression of the people, and those who seek public office may encounter this type of opposition. The morality of such behaviour depends on the circumstance and I leave it to those who do that to review their own consciences.

But I could not leave those involved in planning and executing the November 2016 “Hamilton” debacle without expressing my disapproval. They did wrong. They should have been honoured that another person (in this case, Pence) wanted to see and attend their hip-hop drama show. They did wrong in ambushing him. No audience member, no matter how famous, should be surprised in this way.

Imagine how unnerving it could be — as the actor turns to where you’re sitting and as he begins speaking to you, would you not be unnerved? You may well wonder, in the context of an audience that has already been booing you, whether the words are going to be accompanied by anything else. In the moment, there would be no way to know.

The New York Times had this: “Jeffrey Seller, the lead producer of the show, said the statement to Pence was a group effort. ‘The cast, the creators, we all felt that we must express our feelings,’ Sellers said. ‘We wanted to express our feelings and thoughts.’”

They wanted to express their feelings and thoughts.

They wanted to.


In that case — a free pass?


Some people should not write their own lines.

I like the word “debacle” as a summary of the event, a word which I am not accustomed to using, but which popped into my head as I tried to find the right noun. My big red dictionary defines debacle as “a sudden, disastrous overthrow or collapse; rout; ruin” and it is explained by in this way:

Use debacle to refer to a fiasco, disaster, or great failure. If several dogs run onto the field during the big baseball game, tripping players and chewing up the bases, you can call the whole event a debacle.

That’s a three-syllable way to summarize what they did to their own production. The production itself was outshadowed by their use of the theatre setting for a pre-planned speech to an unprepared member of the audience. They took advantage of the theatre setting in order to satisfy their own whims and get publicity for themselves and their production along the way. In so doing, they did a disservice to theatre itself.

No stars.