Is Your Theatre A Boob Box?

06.05.11 | 4 Comments

CATEGORIES audiences, conversation starter

I’m not sure who coined the expression “boob tube” but its implication has always been clear to me: people who watch TV are boobs, simpletons, and lack common sense.

Even as a kid, I never really understood this characterization of TV viewers because it was with TV that I first learned to express my autonomy. If I didn’t like what I was watching, I could always turn the channel, turn off the TV, or leave. I wasn’t compelled by the conventions of TV to sit passively and absorb whatever was presented to me. Even as a kid, it seemed to me that only a boob would do something like that.

I thought of this one evening as I sat feeling trapped in a performance I was mostly enjoying. I felt trapped, despite my enjoyment, because the conventions of “fine art” live performance expect me to sit there in a passive boob-like state of awe. Even when I admire the work on stage, this experience can be frustrating. When I dislike the work onstage, the experience is a kind of torture.

I’m not sure when theatres became boob boxes but today far too many theatres are exactly that. Audiences are expected to check their autonomy at the door and accept whatever is presented to them in passive silence. I’ve even attended children’s theatre where some of the kids shushed into a dull silence some of the other kids who were audibly enjoying what they watched.

I suppose it could be argued that theatre, as an art form, requires a passive audience that is willing to sit silently for sixty minutes or more. If this is true, it also explains why this kind of theatre is struggling to find an audience. We live in an age — thankfully — when people are far less willing to play the part of the passive simpleton.

Personally, I’m not too interested in creating or consuming theatre for simpletons. I’m also pretty confident that many of you who follow #2AMt feel the same way. My question, then is this: what can be done to make the experience of theatre less passive for the audience?

I’m sure some of you are already experimenting along these lines. I would love to read about your successes, failures, and ideas for the future in the comments section below.

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Sterling Lynch

I write about the arts, marketing, and community.

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  • Hmm. On the one hand, I agree a lot with what you’re saying. I do believe theatre as an art form expects audiences to be very passive in terms of accepting what is on stage. Standing ovations have become almost required (whether you liked what happened or not), and theatres do not respond well to critiques (even though TV and film has to endure far more public criticism). Hollywood has certianly been quicker to harness the power of blogging, social media, and online communities than Broadway. So I think in order to stay (or become?) relevant, theatre must learn to engage its audience more and actually listen to what patrons want, rather than exhibit a “put up or shut up” approach.

    On the other hand, I am not in favor of every theatre performance becoming the groundlings section of the Globe. I do expect a certain amount of decoroum in theatre. For example, it is rude to have a loud conversation in the midst of a quiet moment on stage (as it is rude to do so at a movie theatre). Any individual’s obnoxious activity that intereferes with others enjoying the show is bad. I do want audiences to be responsive (laugs/tears/cheers/gasps). But getting up and doing the wave while Othello is clutching Desdemona would be deciedly unappealing.

  • Jim Stark

    Like Michelle, I think that patrons should laugh, cry, clap and respond to the play–but not to each other (as in discussing the performance while it’s still going on) and not to outside (gadget-using) persons.  Theatre is about being in the space together, to attend to a specific story and its related ideas.  It does require some focus from the patrons.  That’s not asking them to be passive–in fact, quite the opposite.  A passive patron is the one who sits there saying “What about ME, people?”

  • Thanks for your comment, Michelle.

    I agree obnoxious behavior should be avoided. 
    I guess my background assumption is that the definition of “obnoxious” is context dependent. 

    Shushing a person at a rock concert in a bar, for example, is as obnoxious as a person chattering away in a traditional theatrical setting. I’m hoping people will share experiences in which they experimented with the context of theatre in order to allow people in the audience to be less passive and not at all obnoxious — given the revamped context. Does that make more sense?

  • Hi Jim! Thanks for your comment. 

    I’m very friendly to the idea that there is a kind of theatre which — by definition — requires the kind of focus you identify. If this is true, perhaps, my beef is with lazy artists who take our focus for granted and don’t do the work to earn our attention. 

    Admitting that, it doesn’t preclude the possibility that there are other kinds of theatre which capitalize on the possibility of there being a number of different points of focus. It’s those kinds of experiments, successes, and failures I’d like to learn more about.