Shouting "Kill the Playwright" in a Crowded Theatre
I went to see a play in December during which an audience member called for the death of the playwright.
I’d been looking forward to seeing Annie Baker’s The Flick; I knew it was a polarizing play. During its run at Playwrights Horizons, the artistic director responded to the varying reactions of some subscribers (both vocal complaints and walkouts) by sending out a letter to them, discussing the process of developing the play, and the creative team's artistic decision to keep it at its length and pace. Then, of course, the play won the Pulitzer Prize. I was pleased when it moved downtown for a commercial run.
The effect of the pay gap on theatre is easily visible. Quite simply, there are not enough works by women being produced.
I got a nice discount for the holiday matinee from TDF and headed to the Barrow Street Theater. It was a good house, almost full, with a range in age that was wider than you usually see at an afternoon show, though like many theatre audiences, mostly white.
The play moved at its own rhythm, much slower than anything on TV or most American films, stretching out over three hours in a time when a 65-minute play can be considered a full-length. I let myself relax into the play, which was purposeful in its pace. The detail and routine of the movement and dialogue, the...pauses, drew attention to the constraints of lives lived on the edges by people who find it hard to articulate their fear and desperation. It was extremely well directed and acted. The set was perfect, and the lighting was almost a character.
When the dialogue was low, and sometimes muted, I leaned forward to catch it, impeded toward the end of the first act by loud feedback from a hearing aid. I wondered at first if it were yet another design element, but decided that it was just someone who couldn’t hear, cranking up his or her audio assistance.
When the lights went down at the end of the act, just as people started to applaud, a man in the back yelled, “Booooo! Kill the playwright!” Applause died away.
The rest of the audience froze. These days, an angry person shouting about killing in a public place is enough to set off our fight-or-flight response—make us think whether we should take cover or run for the exit or whether we’ll make it home alive. It’s the new “shouting fire in a crowded theatre.”
I’ve always thought of the theatre space as safe and sacred. No matter what happens onstage, even if it’s an awful play, the work takes the priority. We theatre folk indulge in a righteous pleasure when we excoriate the behavior of the nimrods who take photos, text, or won’t stop talking, but this crossed a line.
I stood up and looked for the man. I was going to have a word with him. Then I realized: I would make a scene, and not a scene from a play. I wanted to give him what for. But it was probably what he wanted. Zealots want attention; spoilers want proof they’ve spoiled it.
So I got up and left the auditorium. I went to the house manager and said, “Did you have that man escorted out?” And he said, “We heard somebody said something. What was it? What did he say?” I told him, and he looked shocked.
As the audience gathered for the start of the second act, we kept looking at each other and shaking our heads. In a strange way, I felt like we were determined to support the show, and our right to see it, in the second act.
It was beautiful. As a playwright, I could appreciate how carefully all of the detail that had been laid in during the first act led to an inevitable conclusion. I had read some reviews comparing the style of the play to Pinter with the…pauses. To me, it was more of an American Chekhov, because you knew there was no way these people were ever getting to Moscow.
It was also a nuanced look at class and race, privilege and tribalism, and how the people who have the least will turn on each other to keep their small part of the pie. It was very much an End of the American Empire play. I’ve noticed that women playwrights who are political in that way often make critics and audiences uncomfortable. It’s not our part of the house, so to speak, and why don’t we head back out to the kitchen [sink drama]?
And layered onto my experience of the play was the knowledge that someone sharing the room with me in New York City in 2015 felt so righteous in his beliefs as to call for the playwright’s death.
Artists and writers all over the world are being jailed, tortured, beaten, and killed for daring to have an opinion. From my own city, a presidential candidate says harsh, vulgar, obscene things about “the other” every day: women, Muslims, Latina/os. Angry people, threatened people, hateful people, ruining it for everyone else.
For a long time, I refused to leave plays, even really bad plays, at intermission. I told myself that even the worst play has something to teach me. I got over that. Now I’ll make an early exit when something is poorly done, or even if it’s well done and I don’t like what it’s saying. Life’s too short.
I imagined myself confronting the man who’d shouted for Annie Baker’s death. Calling him on his privilege; his insistence on making his experience everyone else’s. A person who couldn’t just leave at intermission, but had to register his disapproval publicly, shoveling his crap all over the people who had chosen to spend an afternoon, and their money, watching a Pulitzer Prize-winning play because he didn’t like it and didn’t think anyone else should.
It was one of those days that had the best and worst of New York City all in one, and you couldn’t even separate them.