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Jo Caird: Some Thoughts on Audiences

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It's a cliché these days to talk about the huge disparity between audiences and shows at the Fringe, but the point still stands that there are simply not enough bums for all the available seats, meaning of course that while some shows get good houses, most get terrible ones and some sell barely any tickets at all.

But rather than dwelling on this uncomfortable truth, I'd like to think about the audiences themselves and look at their behaviour. Do audiences respond differently when they've paid to be there compared to when they haven't for example? Last year saw the launch of the Theatre Ninjas scheme, which allows visitors to the Fringe to access a list of shows advertising free tickets for that day’s performance, and gives them a password to exchange for a ticket at the venue's box office.

This summer the app and website has returned, to the delight of audiences and companies alike, the former because it gives them the opportunity to see shows for free, the latter because it means they're not playing to empty houses. The only people who aren't feeling so positive about Theatre Ninjas are the Pleasance, Gilded Balloon and Assembly, who have made it clear to the companies performing with them that they are not to offer tickets via the scheme. This is a great shame as far as I'm concerned, as it's not just the shows in smaller venues that benefit from the sorts of audiences – enthusiastic, grateful ones – that Theatre Ninjas bring in. Of the large venues, only Underbelly have been supportive of the scheme, which says something I think about the forward-looking, risk-taking attitude of this venue compared to the others.

But even if you've got people in, that doesn't necessarily mean they're going to be a 'good' audience. Last week I witnessed various types of bad behaviour on the part of audience members in shows, including holding entire conversations, sleeping, and sitting with their arms crossed with a 'come on, impress me, why don't you?' look on their faces. I was even told about a show in which an audience member booed rather than applauded at the end of the performance.

Booing is clearly in another league from the other examples mentioned, but even these are unacceptable displays of disrespect on the part of audience members. What many people forget, I think, is that it is usually possible for the performers to see and hear exactly what is going on in the auditorium (especially at the Fringe, when that auditorium is probably the back room of a pub or a Portakabin). I'm always very aware of this myself when taking notes during a performance, having been chastised by performers (after the show I might add, and always in a friendly way) for sitting too close and being too obvious in my scrawlings.

The job actors do up there for us may seem like an instinctive, enjoyable one, but performance of any kind requires an enormous level of concentration, which once lost due to distraction, is difficult to regain. Talking, of course, disturbs other audience members too. If you've got something to say, wait until the end of the performance. And do your best to look interested. However much we're disliking what you're seeing, the performers are working hard up there and we owe them at least our full, undivided attention.

The most extraordinary display of audience behaviour I've seen in the past week, however, was at the Ontroerend Goed show, Audience, which, through a series of provocative scenes, deliberately sets out to bait members of the audience into reacting to what is going on before them. One scenario in particular, where a young female member of the audience was bullied and insulted by a performer, provoked such rage and offence that people around me shouted and swore at the performer in question. This, of course, was the hoped for response: with this show, Ontroerend Goed forces us to examine the way that we behave in group situations, questioning the role of individual morality when herd mentality provides a convenient ethical get out clause. But so angry was the man sitting behind me, that when, at a calmer moment later in the show I politely asked him and his wife to stop talking, he bellowed at me “I'll stop talking when I f**king want to”. Not good behaviour.


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