Audiences fascinate me. There is something intriguing about how groups of people at theatres or concert halls ‘coalesce’ as they respond both to the performers and to the performance. In all this, their behaviour seems to follow sets of rules that depend very much on a local culture and, as an occasional audience member, these rules are sometimes upsetting. Importantly, there is a real difference between behaviour as an event ends – the ‘thank-you’ moment – and that which occurs during the performance.

First to the endings. There is a story about a young British tenor who, early in his career was invited to sing at La Scala – the celebrated opera house in Milan. His performance was followed by applause and the traditional demands for an ‘encore’. Several encores later, by which time he was visibly flagging, a voice from the audience requested yet another reprise, this time adding “You’ll go on until you get it right!”

In very different circumstances at a recent event near our home in Richmond, the audience did indeed demand an encore. We had just listened to a magnificent concert in the local church. It was unaccompanied singing by the ten-person Tallis Scholars who had sung sixteenth and seventeenth century English music by the likes of Tallis, Byrd and Purcell. The church was packed and after the concert was over there was enthusiastic clapping. Having already left the stage, the choir returned and the audience’s request was honoured with a single and enchanting encore. Then the evening was over.

How different this was from France, at least based on my experience of the many concerts I have heard in Brittany. There, in my opinion, the audience’s conduct is fiercely intimidating. What starts as random individual clapping soon evolves into a rhythmic, strident and drum-like beating sound with everyone clapping in unison. To me this sound is militaristic and threatening; the public want more and are not prepared to take no for an answer. In response to such a bullying banging, five encores might follow although, in protest, I will usually have left the auditorium before the second.

Now to audiences during a performance. My view is based on experience at UK theatres over the years at traditional performances. There, in respect to both those on stage and those in the auditorium, while the actors are weaving make-believe, audiences stay quiet, attentive and certainly do not interrupt. There is something sacrosanct about the play and nothing should be allowed to interfere with the two hours or so of the audience’s suspended disbelief. 

Obviously the atmosphere is very different at a pantomime where members of the audience, which would include children, are actually expected to converse with those on stage and exchange banter. They shout out one-liners as the plot demands with warnings such as ‘He’s behind you’ or disagreements such as ‘Oh no it’s not’. Moreover, at traditional theatre one is expected to stay still, while at pantomimes, toddlers are allowed to play in the aisles. Interestingly, such freedom is also accepted at jazz concerts where dancing in the aisles is almost expected. 

Back to audience conduct at classical theatre. While I am happy being in the audience in the UK, I have sometimes found it difficult to cope with certain practices elsewhere in the world. Years ago at a theatre in the USA, the spell being woven on the stage was broken when, mid-scene, a round of applause greeted either the entry of one of the cast’s stars or followed a particular soliloquy. When this occurred the play would halt, only to resume as though nothing had happened once the applause had stopped. As I see it, the interruption of a performance by an audience in this way is an unacceptable intrusion. 

Later, I saw similar interruptions in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. Here, the applause greeted particular singers or dancers as they appeared on stage. Those responsible were the ‘claqueurs’, as they are called, whose behaviour is said to be orchestrated by agents of the stars themselves. Such disruption by a small section of the audience still continues. 

Almost mirroring these claqueurs are many in Russian audiences who show scant regard for the interests of those who come to be entertained. At Russian productions it is common to see brightly-lit screens of phones and iPads flickering in the auditorium throughout a performance. 

In most instances, when one goes to a theatre or concert hall it is the performance itself that dominates.  However, the conduct of the audience can also play its part, sometimes enhancing, sometimes diminishing the pleasures offered. This conduct is cultural and not always easy to cope with and, if I can’t manage, I leave.

For help with writing this blog I would like to thank Ella, Harold, Kate, Neil, Rohan and Vivien.

The illustration shows a photo of the choir of the Tallis Scholars who sang unaccompanied in Richmond. They are seated around their conductor Peter Phillips.

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