Friday, 11 May 2012

Audience Conduct and Photography

Following a spat between a critic and a celebrity at a performance of an opera at the Barbican Theatre this week, the Guardian opened up a conversation about conduct at performance events. It's a wide-ranging debate, taking in both pop gigs and stand-up comedy, as well as opera, theatre and concerts. Consequently there's a wide range of opinion: discussing the appropriateness of throwing drinks during an opera is the most extreme example of how this particular discussion doesn't always meet in the middle. Perhaps.

My attitude is fairly simple: that one should expect an audience to pay attention to the show and behave accordingly.

This formulation contains a number of things, namely
  • 'one' means performers, other audience members and the house administration alike. When the lights go down everyone is equally responsibile for the show
  • 'behave accordingly' means behave appropriately. This means (risking the tautology) watch and listen to the show. If one is doing this, then there leaves little room for unwrapping sweets, clearing one's throat, using a phone to record or snap clips of the show, rustling excessive jewellery or talking
  • 'should expect'. Anyone who tells an audience how to behave in a show is negating the show
The whole issue came about as someone is alleged to have been taking photos with a flash during the show. Clearly, doing this is wrong for three clear reasons: the individual has to disengage from the show to fiddle with the camera; the flash can be disruptive to others in the audience and the performers; taking a photo infringes on the artist's rights.

However, some audience members take photos after the performance during curtain calls. Equally, those associated with the performance in some way are (increasingly) taking photos during rehearsals immediately prior to performance in order to promote the show. Both actions look to preserve a souvenir of the performance without disrupting the performance itself. I see no issue with this.

This is still a grey area - English National Opera staff come down heavily on curtain call photography, though it seems less of a problem at the Royal Opera or the main concert halls (Southbank concert halls, Barbican, Royal Albert Hall). The fact is that the photography is not interfering with the performance itself. It's also unlikely to give away plot details (i.e. constitute a 'spoiler') given that theatre performances are often advertised with a number of production photographs anyway. It's also the case that performers are quietly grateful for some sort of media record of their participation, especially one that can be referred to indirectly, i.e. via a web link.

Behaviour whether it be a old issue of not talking or a new one of not Tweeting all rests on the same issue. Live performance works because of the direct connection between the performer and the audience. Anything that mediates that, let alone breaks it, whether introduced by production or audience interrupts that direct link and devalues the performance as a direct result*.

*Hence the Proms-broadcast picture at the top of this piece and, presumably, the starting point for John Berry's recent involvement with the discussion about cinema streaming ENO productions, though that's a separate issue really.

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