Theatre-ing While Disabled—Audience Edition
In this series, Kate highlights some of the twenty theatre job titles she’s held over the years, rating them based on their level of awesomeness / non-awesomeness through the lens of her physical disability. Each position is ranked on a scale of one to five possible canes. This is the final article in this series.
I need to confess. Since moving to Los Angeles from Washington, DC a year ago, I’ve only seen three Legitimate Theatre productions, and they’ve all been attended in the last two weeks. I’ve been dreading returning to the theatre as an audience member in a city where I don’t already know what to expect at each house.
I wish that theatres would embrace more fluid ideas of what constitutes appropriate audience etiquette.
This isn’t to say I haven’t been out to performances. I’ve seen one metric ton of stand-up shows, sketch shows, improv shows, and variety shows. But in any of these situations, the standard audience etiquette is different than at your average LORT house.
I wish that theatres would embrace more fluid ideas of what constitutes appropriate audience etiquette. We ought to carefully consider who is excluded from the experience when required to sit in perfect silence, in a designated squeaky seat, in darkness, next to strangers, with no food or drink, without a bathroom, in a narrow row, for several hours. In fact, now that I’ve written that, it sounds more like a hostage situation than a way in which I want to spend my entertainment dollars. Oh, and PS, there are one million stairs, because this play is produced in the non-accessible, historic building that’s within the budget constraints of this small non-profit. If you want to arrive eighty-five minutes before curtain, the house manager will begrudgingly assist your entrance through the loading dock out back. Also, we put all the seats on risers, for some reason. Yes, all of them. We feel like if you’re not willing to get yourself up the risers, you haven’t really earned this play. No, you can’t just sit on the floor. You’re an adult. Please comport yourself with the dignity Tennessee Williams requires of you.
Contrast this with the experience of seeing a comedy show here in Los Angeles. A couple weeks ago, I went to a very good play at a lovely theatre in the afternoon, and walked over to the storefront comedy venue for the evening show. Having these experiences back-to-back made me appreciate a few things about the latter:
- I got to sit on a couch, with my feet up.
- I got to stand up whenever I wanted…
- To go get the free, spiked punch at the snack table, or to go grab some Oreo cookies to bring back to my comfy couch seat.
- The admission price was 5 dollars plus tax.
- They announced where the bathrooms were before the start of the show: They were behind the stage. The host gave directions to how to go around the back if you felt like it, but clarified that she’s not the boss of when you have to pee, and that no one was going to be mad at you if you had to walk in front of a comic to get to the restroom.
- Free tarot card reading before the spooky Halloween show! (I’d never done one before. It was fun!)
- I could check my texts. I could have posted all of it to Instagram in real time, if I’d wanted to. People still silenced their phones and tended not to look at them, but if someone had their phone out, the assumption was that they were either engaging with the production in a digital way, or that they had some urgent personal thing they were tending to for a hot second. At no point did anyone lament the state of society or the problems with these Millennials.
- The dress code was inclusive of whatever anyone felt like wearing that day. There were some super-short dresses on women old enough to be my peers!
- The absence of any other audience member giving me side-eye, or otherwise making me feel like I didn’t belong there.
It’s the last one that got me. I’m new to the comedy scene in LA, and aware that I reasonably should feel like an outsider. Contrary to what I expected, I’ve found the environment to be immediately welcoming. Sure, there have been a couple jerks and weirdos, but they don’t seem to set the tone. I’ve been attending Fancy People Theatre since I was four (thanks, Grandma!), and have made a career of theatre-making. I ought to feel completely at ease in that environment, but I instead feel increasingly like there are unspoken rules that I’m breaking every time I show up.
Everyone who was employed by the theatre where I went to see my matinee was warm, lovely, and serious about the great work they were doing. Various members of the audience, though, seemed to have problems with my being there, when:
- I went to my seat and took an extra second to tuck my cane away. It might have been a full five seconds. The couple entering the theatre behind me was not having it.
- I started squeaking in my chair during the first act as I tried to get in a comfy position after my right hand and foot went numb.
- I adopted my unladylike signature slump in my seat, to take some pressure off my spine, during the second act.
- I plugged my ears for a whole scene where I knew there would be gunshots.
- I stretched at intermission.
- I hobbled out slowly after the post-show discussion, having gotten a bit stiff in three or so hours in my creaky seat.
There were several times where I felt the impulse to say to another audience member, “It’s okay; I know the playwright! I’m allowed to be here!” The whole experience frankly felt a little icky. My fellow audience members—not all of them, only about four of them—behaved as though I was an inattentive four-year-old whose bad posture and fidgeting disqualified her from interacting with polite society. I’m a huge rule-follower by nature, and the thought that my being there irritated anyone really weighed on me. It wasn’t until after I went to the comedy show that I started to feel a little irritated at these people for being irritated. I now have definitive proof that the performance will not be ruined if I sit with my legs crossed and do some stretches between acts.
The next two plays I saw were lovely all around: One audience skewed very old, and had more patience for my mobility issues since so many of them were dealing with their own. The other audience skewed very young, and perhaps hadn’t been indoctrinated with the same rigid rules of theatre etiquette. This later audience was also wonderful, from an actor’s perspective. They weren’t afraid to laugh at the funny parts or gasp at the shocking parts. It was as though the theatre was a place for us to come together and share an artistic experience, rather than being a place where we all gather to practice our stoicism and fine posture.
I’m glad I ripped off the band-aid and started attending theatre in Los Angeles. I’ll keep going back because the artists involved are doing relevant, interesting, intelligent work. But I’d be lying if I said I weren’t more eager to get to another comedy show. I’m more comfortable there now, both physically and emotionally.
It’s vitally important for our field to cultivate inclusive audiences. The relevance of our field depends on it.
I’m not advocating disruption of the performance by any means, but I feel that the standards for what count as “disruption” among traditional theatre audiences has gotten out of hand. It’s vitally important for our field to cultivate inclusive audiences. The relevance of our field depends on it. The change starts with us as artists, and many, if not most, of us are already on board. But how do we train our current, more pearl-clutching audience members towards a house that welcomes everyone? Are they willing to give that power away? Is there a measure of pride in being able to perform the role of audience member in The One True Way? This matter doesn’t just affect people with disabilities. Current theatre etiquette norms exclude everyone except for a certain (wealthier, whiter, less disabled) audience, and we have too many seats to fill to let the more irritable among them keep everyone else away from their special place forever.
In conclusion: I give the job of theatre audience-member three out of a possible five canes, with room for improvement depending on the culture of the house and how many damned stairs I have to climb.