They were throwing things at us! Is it really good to boo in the theater?

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Panto season is almost over and we’ve booed the bad guys to death. But as the curtain falls on this distinctive sound until next Christmas, should we consider poking fun more often? This is not a call to continue the antisocial biting, hitting, drinking, urinating, or worse things that have made headlines recently. It is an investigation into the ancient – ​​and possibly excellent – ​​tradition of collective dissent, expressed in the once all-powerful “boo” of the audience.

In the pantomime, these protests have little effect: they are so imbued with complacent bonhomie that we might as well be applauding. The most serious and incendiary boos of discontent have been virtually silenced, save for solitary clicks or snorts. But for centuries, theater etiquette allowed boos and catcalls along with cheers and catcalls, all permitted within the great debating hall of drama.

Epic plays were something completely new, an experiment. No one really knew how to respond to them.

Booing is still present in the realm of stand-up comedy, music concerts, opera, and even the Cannes film festival, and it is quite shocking when it occurs. This could be because the material is considered poor or the action on stage is offensive. But booing can also be a sign of intolerance. Robert Hastie, artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, has seen it at the opera. “Usually it is because the performer or performance has deigned to present an alternative to an established canonical interpretation. I know an actor [of colour] “who worked in Germany, on a Wagner opera, who was booed.”

From ancient Greece onward, a powerful exchange between performer and spectator has been a cornerstone of the theatrical experience. Pamela Jikiemi, director of film, television and audio at Rada, notes that when plays were the main form of entertainment, they were often so long that social interaction became inevitable: “Audiences were encouraged to respond.”

This was the case for Shakespeare’s audiences, adds Farah Karim-Cooper, professor of Shakespeare studies at King’s College London. A Shakespeare play performed at the Globe in Elizabethan times was a pleasant event and the auditorium a pleasantly noisy place. As a relatively new industry, it had no prevailing social code. “These big, epic commercial works,” says Karim-Cooper, “were something completely new and an experiment. “No one really knew how to respond to them.”

Although the spectators often gave out thunderous applause, they also did not refrain from expressing noticeable disapproval, although without open hostility. Repertory companies, which performed a different work each night, were swayed by audience reaction: “If audiences didn’t respond well to a new play,” says Karim-Cooper, “you wouldn’t see that play again. The programming was based on the taste of the audience because otherwise they wouldn’t make money.”

That someone does not leave, but stays to boo, that tells its own story.

This was no different to the music hall of the 19th century, when “the audience was king”, says Simon Sladen, senior curator of theater at the V&A and president of the UK Pantomime Association. Applause or ridicule became a litmus test, essential to determine how managers shaped billing. “If you wanted to remove the person from the stage, you would boo them and people would throw things at them too. If you wanted to wear them, you would cheer for longer.”

But as the shows ran longer, decisions no longer depended as much on the immediacy of the audience’s reaction. Technological advances, including the advent of electricity and improved lighting, calmed the public. “In Shakespeare’s theater, everything was lit so that the audience was visible,” says Karim-Cooper. But as viewers were left in the dark, the dynamic changed. “It keeps the public quiet. “I could have trained them to be more reverent.”

Thus we reach modern audiences, some more willing to express their dissatisfaction than others. Katerina Evangelatos – artistic director of the Athens Epidaurus festival, which celebrates ancient Greek drama – has witnessed audiences of up to 10,000 expressing her outrage at unconventional interpretations of canonical tragedies, loudly condemning them as sacrilegious.

British-Tanzanian actor Lucian Msamati has had numerous first-hand experiences with heckling, such as in Harare while performing with his Zimbabwe-based theater company, Over the Edge. It was about playing to the wrong audience, in the wrong place, rather than a failure in performance. “It was our adaptation of Shakespeare’s Complete Works,” he says, “that the Reduced Shakespeare Company had great success with. We were the first company on the African continent to obtain the rights to do so. We adapted it for five actors and included local jokes.” But when his group took him to a music festival and in front of an audience that had been drinking all day, there was open hostility. “Within about 30 seconds, we were being booed and booed. They were throwing things at us! In the end we had to leave the stage.”

Most disconcertingly, he remembers hearing boos when he opened the curtain on Grief Becomes Electra at the National Theater in 2003, in which he starred alongside Helen Mirren and Paul McGann. “One night it was very audible and I was curious why they were booing, because it’s very rare. Maybe some audience members were thinking, ‘This is a big show, with all these stars, and I’m not impressed; I’m going to express that.’ That someone doesn’t leave but makes an effort to boo at the end tells its own story.”

If there is any use in modern heckling, it is in its affront to bourgeois decorum, which can lead to passive audiences, indifference and even dishonesty. Msamati, for her part, does not resent viewers for her honest yet hostile response. In places inhabited by a less traditional or more culturally diverse audience, there tends to be a more fickle “dialogue” between actors and audience. Msamati cites the uninhibited reactions of those who saw the recent Red Pitch at the Bush Theatre, and feels that it is never discouraging for an actor to hear loud exclamations, sometimes disapproval, when the house is so enthralled by the drama that its disbelief is completely suspended. . .

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Although the public may not be as outspoken as before, they have found other ways to express their discontent. Actors report that viewers reach for their phones (or even, in the case of Andrew Scott’s Hamlet, a laptop), which could be a passive aggressive form of disapproval. They also talk about the aggressive nature of collective cough. The most socially acceptable expression of displeasure in the auditorium seems to be the exit, sometimes en masse, which could be equivalent to booing with the feet.

Boos, when there is is A rare outbreak can divide the public. Sladen recalls a performance of Imagine This, a musical about the Holocaust, set in the Warsaw ghetto, which closed in early 2008. He says boos broke out during a scene in which the characters put on a spectacle on their way to extermination. . . “That was the first time I was in an audience that actually booed the unpleasant nature [of a show], particularly one of the songs in which a character did a dazzling musical number while being murdered. The boos were visceral and actually quite terrifying.”

But, he adds, there was a contingent that silenced their fellow audience members. “You had a strange soundtrack for the musical number: some people disapproved of what was happening on stage, others disapproved of the booing and tried to stop it. The clashing sounds became a statement of feeling.”

The Globe has to gird its loins in every free show for children

Perhaps it is cathartic when we are encouraged to boo, and perhaps this explains panto’s enduring success. But panto booing has evolved. While they are now purely unruly, they were once morally charged: crowds applauded the good fairy and booed the villain, Sladen says, in what could have been an extreme display of the polarities of good and evil. “The vocal contribution of the public encouraged the moral lesson to be learned. But then we get to family entertainment, where it becomes a common convention. Booing when a villain appears helps build a shared community. And if you talk to the villains on stage today, they feel that the more boos they get, the more the audience likes them.”

It’s also a sign, Hastie believes, that audiences have become delightfully absorbed in the action and have stopped seeing the separation between character and actor. “I’ve experienced the best kind of booing, which is at a pantomime or a youth show, where they are so immersed in the show that they believe the fiction is real, or they invest in the fiction as if it were reality.”

For Msamati, young people are the most astute and critical audience, because they do not hide their instinctive responses. “They can smell lies from miles away,” Msamati says, “and they will voice it.” Karim-Cooper agrees. A Globe program offers free shows for children, many of whom have never been to the theater before. She says their noise and limitless responses, both negative and positive, are as close to an Elizabethan audience as you’ll find. “The Globe has to girdle its waist every time,” she says. “No one has taught them how to go to the theater and space does not teach you how to be in it. “It’s electrifying.”

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