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.

two men in the audience of a theater
Kyle Beltran and Danny Wolohan in The Flick   at the Barrow Street Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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. 

- See more at: https://web.archive.org/web/20160128000832/http://howlround.com:80/shouting-kill-the-playwright-in-a-crowded-theatre#sthash.75oTDBVH.dpuf

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It's dodgy as all get-out calling for someone's death.

But I am reminded of a thought from George Bernard Shaw, who said that the worst response was not booing but coughing, as it indicated a complete lack of impact on the audience. Evidently The Flick had one heck of an impact on shouty-guy, one that Ms. Baker can wear as a badge of honour.

Theatre at its best is profane, unsafe, provocative and unrelenting. The problem isn't the audiences it's that as artists we lack the courage to face them without layers and layers of protection. The 4th wall is so thick it's suffocating everyone on stage and in the house. In the end, the real question is: would you rather be 1) gagged and silenced at a very expensive play surrounded by stuffy, traditional-minded 75-year-olds who want to send you to your room, or 2) stay home, order a pizza and put on some Netflix? It's not terribly surprising that the answer has consistently been #2 for the last several generations.

One thing I don't see being discussed here is that it is specifically a male audience member calling, however figuratively, for the death of a female playwright. Because of the casual violence against women in our society (for example, from http://bittergertrude.com/2... "I was pushed, HARD, to the ground, at an ATM because I refused to acknowledge a strange guy who was demanding that I smile at him."), that makes these words likely charged for many female audience members and, once the word gets back to her, potentially the playwright. So yes, I am specifically calling for disapproving words to be chosen to be free of any and all violent imagery, however un-meant. If the guy was that unengaged, he had plenty of time to think over his words and choose them carefully.

Interestingly, a similar disturbance occurred at a series that I curate last week. Now Drunken! Careening! Writers! has a very live audience, and occasionally audience members interject a comment...but I don't permit heckling. Last week, a rather large drunk man came into the bar and started mumbling and talking to himself as the first writer finished. As the second writer began, she said: oh no. We're not having this. And she was right. The bartenders, and a producer who was at the reading herded the guy toward the door. He was unwilling to go, and challenged one of the other audience members to a fight, and I stood up and moved on him...putting my belief on the line that you do not have the right to interrupt artists presenting their work, and thought: well, if he takes a swing at me, I'll duck. Fortunately, we were able to move him out of the room without a physical struggle. The writer's reading was excellent, and we would not have been able to enjoy it with a large angry drunk in the room.

You do see the difference between the two incidents, don't you?

This guy interrupted artists presenting their work. I absolutely agree that that's way out of line.

The guy at The Flick didn't interrupt the performance. He responded to the work at the same time everyone else in the audience did.

...and yet he was the only one who made a violent threat/suggestion. Here's an experiment. Get on an airplane and yell "KILL THE PILOT!" and see if they let you stay on the plane. Go to a political rally and yell "KILL THE CANDIDATE" and see if you end up on the ground. It's a language failure if you can't respond to something that you dislike without wishing death on its creator. And with that, I'm out. You seem like a very angry person who's arguing for the sake of arguing.

Me, angry? Nope. I'm too lazy. Carrying around anger is a lot of work.

But I'd like you to answer a basic question that it seems like you've been trying to dodge.

Your essay reads, frankly, as if what you really object to is booing - but that you're reluctant to say so in so many words, so you're directing attention to the word kill.

So please, let us know:

If your only objection was to the violent wording, and you could accept plain old booing, say so.

And if you think booing is simply unacceptable behavior, say so directly. Maybe even in an essay here at HowlRound. That could be a useful discussion for the theater commons.

"I feel as though..." is effectively useless in this type of conversation. You have feelings. Good for you. Whatever MWnyc's motivations for arguing might be, they are irrelevant next to the argument itself.

MWnyc brought up a rather cogent point, one that seems fairly logical and, frankly, coldly devoid of any emotion-- anger or otherwise. Dismissing their question out of hand as "petulant" and "not based in any real logic," seems like a rather ineffectual way to bury your head in the sand. If you want to dodge the question and dismiss their argument as illogical the least that you could do would be to demonstrate specific gaps in their rationale.

And their original question remains unanswered-- Is the article an objection to this guy's use of the word 'kill' or booing in general? Why not make that clear from the start?

Somebody did try to kill David Henry Hwang. He was stabbed in the neck while walking home from the grocery store. He nearly died. It is thought to be a random attack.

“Calling him on his privilege; his insistence on making his experience everyone else’s.” I’m sorry, but didn’t Dominique Morisseau recently lecture us that theatrical audiences should “hoot and holler” if so moved, responding to the work at hand however they damn well please? And I assume that would include booing the playwright or even demanding that the author be killed? Perhaps the question is: exactly who gets to determine who’s entitled to decide who’s entitled? Who has earned the privilege to call someone else on his or her privilege?

If he'd said, "Shoot the playwright!" - a phrase that would be commonly understood to be metaphorical (at least pre-Aurora) - would that have been any better?

How about "Boo the playwright!" ?

In other words, is there any way this audience member could express his disapproval - and remember, he wants to make it clear that it's the script he dislikes, not the work of the actors, director or designers (so hissing won't work) - that would be cool?

But why? Why does someone need to publicly express their disapproval? Just leave and go home and tell your friends you didn't like it. Applause is the normal culturally acceptable form of acknowledgement at a play. Hooting and hollering is the normal cultural response at a rock concert. Cheering at a sporting event. But why do we feel it is necessary to also express your disapproval at an arts event - it is a violation of a cultural norm and that is why the audience responded in the way they did. Why MUST someone boo if so moved? Why should they be allowed to say "Kill _____" so publicly? It's not about liking or not liking a production. It is pure ego and entitlement, You don't like it? Leave and tell others not to go. Calling for the death - even a metaphorical one is childish.

"But why? Why does someone need to publicly express their disapproval? Just leave and go home and tell your friends you didn't like it."

Because I paid for a thing, and I spent time on the thing, and I did not enjoy the thing. I am not going to get a refund for my money or be compensated for my time, so I therefore get to let the creators of the thing know my displeasure.

"It is pure ego and entitlement,"

The culture where people are encouraged to applaud and not allowed to boo seems to be more thoroughly based on ego and entitlement to me. If I paid for a thing I didn't like, I'm allowed to express my displeasure. If theatre companies want to avoid that, I suggest making all performances PWYW, and collecting money after the fact. That gives me a way to vote with my dollars.

But see you do express your displeasure! You express your displeasure by walking out. You express your displeasure by talking to someone about the play and saying, "Ya know - I thought it sucked. Worst night of my life". Why do you feel the creators need to know your displeasure - they know this by the reviews, the ticket sales and, god forbid, a Pulitzer Prize. To feel as if your one opinion (or maybe a handful of you) is so valuable to the creators - even when they don't ask for it - is pretty much the definition of ego.

Feeling as if you should be allowed to shout at the stage - even if it is the end of the act isn't about expressing displeasure - it is about WANTING EVERYONE AROUND ME TO KNOW I AM DISPLEASED - and that points to selfish and attention seeking behavior. Mike Daisy had a group of audience members walk up to the stage and dump a glass of water across his script - the manuscript he labored over - because they were displeased. Where does it end? How far do you justify your need and right "to express your displeasure"?

Not "allowed" to boo. Sure you can boo - you have the right to "boo" if you see fit, but then the rest of us have the right to view you as a selfish, egotistical man-baby. You do NOT have the right to shout that someone should be killed - whether joking or not.

"You do NOT have the right to shout that someone should be killed - whether joking or not."

IANAL, but I'm pretty sure I do. Although I fully admit I am more of the mind to encourage horrible people to kill themselves. Now you're right to say that I don't have the right to threaten to kill someone, but the agency disavowal of the passive voice construction creates some leeway: for example, it could very well be the state that does the killing, having decided that terrible play-writing is a capital offense.

"Feeling as if you should be allowed to shout at the stage - even if it is the end of the act isn't about expressing displeasure - it is about WANTING EVERYONE AROUND ME TO KNOW I AM DISPLEASED - and that points to selfish and attention seeking behavior"

It seems to me that the delicate little flowers who want me to remain silent are the selfish ones, and in need of validation on the level of narcissistic personality disorder, but IANAP either.

What those people did to Mike Daisey was waaaay beyond the pale: not only did it disrupt a performance in progress, it potentially interfered with his ability to give a future performance (by ruining his script).

Re your last paragraph: Exactly so (as the Dragoons in G&S's Patience say).

The traditional method is to withhold one's applause. The theatre isn't a YELP platform for individuals with a gripe. It's a communal experience. I applaud vigorously and cheer for what I like, and let others do so for what they like. And leave the negativity to more private spaces.

Sorry my response is so late. Yours is a good statement of the anti-booing position. Thanks very much for it.

For what it's worth, when I'm really angry about something in a production, I hiss - precisely because it's less disruptive than booing. (And it takes a lot to get me to that point: it has to go way beyond work I don't happen to like - into some sort of irresponsible act like making your colleagues or the material you're performing look ridiculous.)

But I believe strongly that if we're going to ask audiences to give time and attention to our work, and even more if we're expecting them to pay for the privilege, then we can't police their responses to the work.

Again stipulating that any disruption of a performance in progress is beyond the pale.

- - - - - - - -

Edited to add: For what it's worth, I follow opera, where booing is somewhat more common (especially of the director and design team of Regietheater productions).

It strikes me that one reason booing may be more common there is that opera houses (even small ones) tend to be bigger than the equivalent venues for spoken theater, so it's easier to boo without being identified by everyone else in the room.

If he didn't like it and didn't think anyone else should, he'd have made comments like that during the play, not at the end of the act when people applaud. (Yes, I have personally seen this happen.)

As it was, he was simply expressing his opinion of the play at the same time everyone else in the audience was expressing theirs (by applauding).

And do you truly feel that one person's three seconds of vocal disapproval "ruin[ed] it for everyone else" by "shoveling his crap all over" the rest of you? I respectfully submit that he can't ruin anything if you don't let it be ruined. As long as he didn't make any disturbance during the performance itself, shake it off and let it go.

Oh, and even in 2015-16 America, do you really, seriously think he literally meant that Annie Baker should be put to death?

This is a sincere question: What is is exactly that makes you think that he thinks his opinion is worth more than anyone else's?

Is it that he expressed his opinion with his larynx and tongue when everyone else expressed it with the palms of their hands?

His reaction was meant to draw attention to himself. He's perfectly allowed to dislike something, but to shout "kill the playwright," an obviously inflammatory and shocking statement, means you want people to know what you think. And to draw attention to yourself. Which means you think you're opinion MUST be heard. I am relatively sure that there were some people who didn't applaud, or who left at intermission with this fellow. They expressed their opinion with their feet without managing to draw attention to themselves. And those that loved the play, by applauding with everyone else, are not drawing attention to themselves. By making a display of it, he is, in essence, chastising those who don't agree with him. And announcing to the room that his opinion is the definitive one.

Thanks for your reply. I don't agree with everything you say, but it makes sense.

First of all, I absolutely agree (as I discussed with Chas Belov and Jeff Bowles in this thread) that kill was a terrible choice of word.

But I think it's clear that nobody thought it was a serious death threat. It seems to me that Kathleen Warnock is hammering on the word kill because she really thinks nobody should ever boo (and especially not a playwright), because "her church", but she doesn't want to come out and say so.

You're focusing on the real issue, which is this guy's (or anyone's) vocal expression of his dislike. I appreciate that.

Yet -

The people who simply left without applauding - was their opinion really expressed if it wasn't visible or audible?

Booing certainly draws attention to you if you're the only one doing it - that's why, if I really hate something, i hiss - but you don't always know you're going to be the only one doing it until it's too late.

This guy, apparently, didn't continue booing; he said his piece and left. If he had continued, he would definitely have been signaling that he thought his opinion was the definitive one. But he didn't, so it's not so clear. And at least he took care to make clear that it wasn't the actors' work he objected to. (Hissing can't make that distinction.)

If I'd been in the audience that day, I would probably have been irked by this man's behavior, too. But I wouldn't have let it keep bugging me enough to write a column fussing about it.

What does bother me is the argument that - as long as the performance itself is not disrupted and no laws are broken - paying audience members shouldn't respond however they want.

I see you're point and disagree in this instance. I think "Kill" was more than just a poor choice of words. I think it was intended to draw attention. I don't think he was seriously threatening Annie Baker, but that doesn't mean it wasn't born of a violent impulse (which he'd likely never pursue). I think anyone who behaves this way in public, so contrary to the norms, feels they have a point to make and he forcibly made the audience pay attention to him. I don't disagree about your right to express yourself. Had he hissed or booed, it would've been unremarkable since it's an accepted way of expressing displeasure. And we'll never know, but it's entirely possible that he would've been joined by those who simply left, so he wouldn't have been alone. In any case, leaving does make a statement. Empty seats are almost always noticed.

He didn't disturb or interfere with the performance in any way; everyone in the audience was able to enjoy the show.

Booing and applause are both audience responses to a production; he gave his response at the same time everyone else in the audience gave theirs.

If you or I liked the production and he didn't, and none of us disrupted the performance, there's no reason at all that we need to let his disapproval affect our enjoyment. He has no power over our experience of the play that we don't give him. He didn't like it; we did; there are more of us than of him.

And you have just explained why anyone should be entitled to do anything they want as long as they can make the case that "you are only affected by my behavior if you let yourself be". Classic anti-social and narcissistic behavior. Also proven as the least effective way to be a member of a society. Not every single person is entitled to express every emotion that they feel inside any time they want. Sometimes you are just a decent person.

Very true.

But sometimes people aren't decent.

My point here was that we don't have to let someone else's indecency ruin our experience. If I thought The Flick was terrific and someone else booed at the intermission break or curtain call, I can just shrug off the boo and remember what a great time I had seeing The Flick.