Friday, February 7, 2014

“The Real Thing” at Two Roads Theatre Forgets its Real Audience by M.R. Hunter

Audiences are funny things. They can be as interesting as the show itself, if not more in some respects. 

Picture, if you will, an assemblage of 50 theatergoers gathering on a dreary evening, made gloomier by the drizzle and the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. It was a Superbowl Sunday and yet, these people had tromped out to see Tom Stoppard’s biting romantic comedy “The Real Thing.”

These people braved the elements. They parked their cars. They wore perfume and ran a brush through their hair. In other words, they came prepared and eager. A few may have been friends or family of the performers and felt dutifully obliged to dash out after a football party to support their relations. No matter the motivation for being there—they were and to their credit, the audience was in lively form.

There was a buzz of anticipation that greeted me as I made my way down the aisle to my friend. We hugged and chatted as I pulled out my trusty notebook and observed the spirited crowd. There were a lot of gray-hairs mixed in with the normal suspects one sees at the theater. 

Audiences are strangers thrown together in a room with a role to play as well—it’s an agreement we make upon buying or in some form, securing our ticket. We agree to take our seats in relatively apt fashion or with help from an usher. We agree to sit (hopefully next to someone we know) in a rather tight space no bigger than a coach seat assignment to be whisked away mentally and emotionally to another place occurring onstage. We agree to turn off our noisemaking gadgets (although some dolts forget). We agree to laugh appropriately if the scene calls for it. We agree to forget our personal troubles and/or our day to completely invest in the action set before us. We agree to applaud even if the applause is not always merited or is perfunctory at best—audiences play a vital part in the creative reciprocal process. It is our task to play our role well.

We accept our role not entirely for altruistic reasons. There is a mutual exchange, an expectation on our end of receiving something ephemeral to this particular gathering of strangers. 

The lights are eventually lowered and the opening scene begins: huzzah! 


Expectant hope can quickly be extinguished whenever a play gets off to a rocky start. A dread falls like a pallor over the spectators as they internally process the disappointing reality they find themselves in. This is not proving to be a promising night out at the theater.

Rarely, and I do mean rarely, does a staging pull up from its opening kamikaze-like nose-down plummet. I wish I could say otherwise but the first 5-10 minutes either spells disaster and doom for the rest of the proceedings or it conveys trust, confidence and hope—of this I require no more proof than virtue of experience. Oh sure, a show can start off well enough and fall to pieces due to a faulty script, bad direction, etc. but that initial opening sets a crucial tone and when that tone is flat and dissonant—the audience knows.

It is the ultimate betrayal. Unlike hecklers lobbing grief to stand-up comedians, or a lousy band scaring off a bar's patrons, or even at a movie where those creatively involved aren't even present, theatergoers generally exude a dignified, reverent martyrdom to their participation. Theatergoers are saints compared to almost any other kind of audience. Those who are brave and able may skulk off before intermission, but this is highly irregular. Patrons of the theater are probably the most eternally optimistic, steadfast, patient, compliant folks you could ever hope to meet, let alone have in your house. We are either gluttons for punishment or euphemistic frog-kissers. 

This is where audiences become far more fascinating than the play itself, especially if the production lacks any merit. Audiences are not just a gathering of individual people behaving properly and with due respect to a show. Let me disabuse any artist of that notion as audiences are an entity unto themselves—a living, breathing, thinking, feeling creature of collective consciousness. 

Audiences are a very real thing. They are occasionally unpredictable. However, such is human nature, they are more often extremely predictable and this belies the curiosity of the human spirit and its willingness to appease even in the face of disappointment. It’s really rather poetic, beautiful and inspiring when strangers are thrown together and find themselves suffering with admirable consideration, humility and congeniality to the performers’ misguided delight.

I can go on and on about the bad acting—and I really cannot stress bad strongly enough in “The Real Thing.” Overacting, posturing, not listening, affectations and what all do a great disservice to Stoppard’s work. Unlike some plays I’ve seen, I’ve witnessed how everything BUT the script fell short and at the very least the playwright's words carried well over the incompetence of a lackluster production. Not true with this play unfortunately, as I spent a protracted amount of time afterwards explaining the plot points to my friend because the lousy performance obfuscated the script to require dramaturgical CPR.

And I knew from the opening scene, that me and my fellow patrons and friend (perhaps not anymore) were in for a bloody hellish long night and yet the audience stayed vigilant to their cause. They stuck with it, despite all the foibles. These folks hung in when most others anywhere else would’ve thrown in the towel but they endured, resisting escape every time another scene change occurred and these were abundant (over 10) and exasperatingly tedious.

The audience did not rise from their seats. They did not give up. They gave in.

Not everyone who joined us at the start returned to their seats after intermission. There were fewer of these lucky bastards than the show deserved. I advised my friend to take off but he's a good pal and stayed the course. 

Had I known or had any inkling of what was about to come in Act II, I would've insisted he save himself and leave me in the foxhole. 

It was hard enough to sit through painfully extracted performances and endless scene changes, we had accepted our fate but then came the smoke.

A pair of actresses lit up the foulest fags as I have never been acquainted. 

The audience, up to that point had been more than charitable, but to fill an intimate black-box space lacking any ventilation with a pungent, repulsive, putrid smelling-smoke was too outrageous a demand from these generous people on a Sunday evening.

I’m a dedicated smoker and even I was gasping for breath and shaking the tendrils of rank from my corduroy jacket. 

I observed in shock and dismay as the audience coughed, braced, winced, stamped, shook and writhed as the smoke permeated the room and clogged our sinuses. What the hell was it they were smoking? A freakin’ unfiltered Camel wouldn’t smell as rancid.

Death by carbon monoxide is painless compared to what we were assaulted with and yet, the audience for all their wheezing and sotto complaints, did not err from their tacit agreement, showing determination even when they couldn’t so much as breathe.

The actors finally stubbed out their reprehensible cigarettes and the audience relaxed, warily. 

Just as we all had made peace with the noxious attack, the young actress lit up another.

How could she stand it? We all wanted to know but more importantly, how could she not hear our collective discomfort?  Let it be noted, nowhere in the program did it say there would be smoke in the second act. 

Eventually, the offending cigarette was put out but the pungent odor remained. We were all put out at this point and had 45 more minutes to get through. And you know what is amazing? The audience still fulfilled their role to applaud the cast, rather dispassionately, as they took their bow. Three hours of mental boredom, disappointment and physical discomfort...and the audience said, "thank you" by clapping.

Only in the theater.

There is a benefit of doubt on the outset an audience gives a performance that makes me wince whenever an artist spouts off some self-absorbed tune of “It isn’t my responsibility how an audience reacts to my work.” Uh…yeah, it is. Sorry, but if you’re not considering your audience then the work in question is guided by a self-driven, egomaniacal principle that borders awfully close to a disrespectful psychological school of thought: “I’m not responsible for your feelings.” Let me disparage this self-centered notion. Of course, everyone feels however they feel but if someone behaves thoughtlessly or without reasonable care to another, this cause creates an effect. To marginalize the effects by dismissing any ownership to them and projecting blame on the receiving party with a variety of "It's not my fault they didn't get it!" "They don't have the right attitude." "I can only as an artist be true to my expression" is just making a litany of excuses. 

We are a symbiotic universe and a symbiotic species. How we treat others is a reflection on us as artists and people in general. This attitude of consideration has been absconded with the celebration of the Self or selfie and in art its effects are quite visible. Artists take the short-view of “if we mount it they will come.” Mounting a production is a Herculean effort, no doubt, but it demands those involved to attempt to view their work from the lens of one who is not rapturously inclined. The audience, even if filled with friends and family, can spend their three hours elsewhere. Why you? Why this? Why should an assemblage of strangers give a hot damn minute about you Mr./Ms. Performer and Mr./Ms. Director?

That’s where I see many productions fall short in this “I’m here! Isn’t that enough?” attitude that belabors any audience’s temperance and goodwill and no, it is not enough you arrived. So did I. So did my fellow patrons. We’re here and we made an agreement. Are you giving us the same respect we are affording you whenever we sit through what amounts to waterboarding torture?

In creating theater, we forget the audience is a real thing, an entity that comes loaded with expectations, feelings, boundaries, and ultimately, the wherewithal to play their role in the unfolding drama of 90 minutes up to three hours. Make them good. Make it worthy. Make it something people will rush out to tell their friends about. Not because you dear artist are in it, wrote it, directed it or otherwise produced it, but because you stopped somewhere before you even entertained putting on this production and answered some invaluable questions that considers who you are doing this for, (queries that anyone associated with selecting “The Real Thing” may have pondered in regards to creatively addressing the technical elements in such a small space and so on). 

The audience exists well before we have even appeared as a collective mass who should not be required to put aside all good sense, favor and physical comfort to watch you ply your trade. We matter. We will be loyal even when frankly it is undeserved. We applaud your efforts, no matter should they fall short. Please, then, show us the same courtesy. Treat us as you would like to be treated which means setting aside your ego, your motives, your selfishness to do something that makes us applaud not from duty but from rapt appreciation. Slide into the all-seeing third eye of an imaginary audience and ponder, “How would I feel or react to this onstage?” I know. It requires stepping outside of yourself, which may cause you to balk and say “I can only know MY experience!” I won’t challenge your I-consciousness and the limitations this affords but I will burden you to take on the ability of empathy and enough foresight, coupled with humility to think of others who by sheer will or good manners alone are thinking of you during a performance. It’s hard, but try—really try to demand the best from yourself and your production always by keeping your audience in consideration. We’re there. We arrived. Earn your applause.

“The Real Thing” was terrible not solely because it failed to deliver the real goods, but because it forgot its real audience and when a show does that, it forgets everything.

“The Real Thing”
Runs through March 9
Fri & Sat @ 8pm
Sundays @ 7pm
Two Roads Theatre
4348 Tujunga Ave.
Studio City, CA  91604
Tickets: $15
PH: 323-822-7898
Be advised there is smoke of the rankest kind in Act II until the production chooses to perform otherwise.

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