They bray like donkeys when a performer makes a move they’ve never seen before. They clap hysterically at any pause in the music or the movement, assuming this is their cue. They give standing ovations for anything at all. These are our people: South African audiences might have the money to attend productions, but their behaviour demonstrates their supreme lack of sophistication. Or basic manners.
It’s a curious reality, which you don’t get at Dance Umbrella, arguably South Africa’s most important spotlight for contemporary dance. But you do get this indiscriminate fawning behaviour in the auspices of Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theatre, here again after 17 years. The company is performing at arguably one of Gauteng’s finest venues, the hype around the production is so enthusiastic, it’s monolithic, and the tickets are not cheap.
However, our local audience behaviour reflects so shamefully on the mawkishness of our community that we collectively seem impervious to the fact that not only do our cell phones ghoulishly light up our own stupid little faces when we open them in a darkened room, but they also upset the focus of maybe ten people sitting around us. It’s also so appalling for a grown person to surreptitiously take photographs when this has been expressly forbidden. Are these the lot that cheat and steal, murder and rape behind closed doors because they don’t think that rules apply to them?
It’s a difficult scenario and I don’t know how it gets addressed. The money these cretins pay is necessary. The fact that they willy-nilly destroy the preciousness of a live production for probably the whole audience seems moot. They don’t do this maliciously, but out of sheer basic ignorance. What does the theatre establishment do? Do you shame them and stop the show? What does an audience member who has paid the ticket and wants to see the show do? Do you wrench the phone from their hand and throw it with conviction as hard and far as possible? Do you stop seeing shows because of the potential fools that might be sitting next to you?
From where I sit, I cannot understand the need to twitter and email while a stage production is in flow. Has our society lost the ability to retain a thought for 90 minutes before it shares it with others? The man next to me at the opening of the Alvin Ailey showcase could not sit still for a minute. He was checking his phone, drinking his water, checking his phone again, trying to take photographs in secret, drinking more water. He was scratching and fiddling. A show is 90 minutes, generally. If one is medically or psychiatrically unable to sit still and look and experience for this space of time, they really shouldn’t do it. The unpleasantness it affords everyone else is not necessary.
Attend any of the Dance Umbrella productions which arguably stretch your understanding of aesthetics, and challenge your perception of what dance or performance mean, and you won’t see this. Should the seeing of dance be restricted to a dance-savvy audience? I do believe, having been in myriads of productions with very different bunches of audience, that there is a move in education where young theatregoers are being infused with an element of etiquette in a space filled with other people and where live performers are on stage.
The brayers and indiscriminate clappers are not children. They are not from a financially thwarted context. They probably are well educated. They’re arrogant and consumed with their own sense of self and the horrendous and idiotic habit of taking ‘selfies’ in that very same darkened theatre, attests to their grotesque and unwarranted sense of their own importance.
I am not speaking audience participation: the shows that are abused so horribly are straight down the line convention proscenium-style theatre, where the production happens on one side, and the audience sits and watches.
So where do we go from here? Do we hold tight and stay at home, waiting for the next generation to reach its zenith, hoping that the boors and behavioural midgets of this world who tout their mediocrity with such abandon, will soon slip out of trend, and that their despicable behaviour will be revealed for what it is? Or do we tough it out? Maybe: the art world is at this point in this country, in this world, so beleaguered from so many points of view – no critical arts space in major newspapers, no funding, no opportunities, that maybe a poorly behaved audience is small fry in terms of the bigger challenges.