Audience, Please Exit Now

Not even a half hour into the 80-minute performance, much of the row behind us gave up and left, clumping and clattering out of the theater. A short while after that, more of the crowd fled, the wood of the risers amplifying their every footfall. Those of us who remained were quiet, whether out of absorption, puzzlement or indifference. I couldn't detect the tenor of the audience, or even the reaction of the good friend beside me. Occasional sparse laughter aside, the spectators at yesterday's matinee of Richard Foreman's "Idiot Savant," at the Public Theater, were so subdued as to seem unresponsive.

But would we have been so at the curtain call? It's impossible to know, because there wasn't one. Instead, the disembodied voice that had spoken to us and to the actors at the beginning of the play ("Message to the performers: Do not try to carry this play forward") spoke again at the end to tell the audience that the performance was over and we were to exit now. The applause that came anyway from those who were not immediately out the door was befuddled, and consequently muted: Are we really supposed to leave without saying thank you?

It's the actors who bow at a curtain call, but it's not only their performance that we're applauding. It's also the writing, the direction, the design -- or, in the case of Foreman, more likely those same three things in reverse order, language being the least of it with him. Nearly everything psychological about his voyages into the imagination is perceptible in his weird, sometimes hallucinatory stage pictures, so vivid that knowledge of English is probably not a prerequisite for viewing. The delicious set of "Idiot Savant" is like a shoebox diorama made human-scale (and, for what it's worth, the best spatial use of the Public's difficult Martinson stage I've ever seen); the actors, the costumes, the scores of props are objects Foreman moves around his diorama. What he's creating is spectacle, and we are spectators. Which is a step removed from being a true theater audience: We're observers, not crucial participants.

And yet when my friend and I walked out onto Lafayette Street (he said he loved it, by the way; so did I), I couldn't help feeling a little bit bad for the actors. If I hadn't been able to gauge the audience's response, had they? Some of the best curtain calls come after performances like that, when a seemingly tepid crowd turns out to have been with the actors all along. If our audience was -- and maybe they weren't; maybe it was mostly a crowd of "Spider-Man" fans who'd come to see Willem Dafoe, mixed with white-haired matinee-goers who are Foreman's contemporaries but not his peers -- the cast will never know it.

Americans are notoriously stingy with their applause, so it may be a little weird that I'm bothered, as an audience member, by the lack of a curtain call. Nonetheless, I am. The absence of it fits the form of the piece, but it doesn't quite fit its spirit, which is nothing if not generous. There's no quibbling with the rest of "Idiot Savant": From Foreman's overflowing imagination come a giant papal stigmata duck and a spotted spider, too; it's simply ungrateful to complain. But amid all that bounty, he leaves us hungry for the chance to give thanks.
November 9, 2009 4:13 PM | | Comments (6)


To keep the audience from acknowledging the efforts put into presenting a play, and to keep the actors from accepting that acknowledgement, is the act of a director who takes theater just a bit too seriously. Yes, it's a serious business, but come on. I have attended plays where there has been no curtain call, and as an audience memeber I felt short changed.

I didn't have a curtain call when I directed THOM PAIN (based on nothing) this past October. I think it depends on what the director wants and what the play commands. Is it a theatre piece? Or is it truly something more? Some directors want the audience to leave with the feeling that they just witnessed art that was affective, and don't want them to applaud if it was visually effective. I guess an easier way: do you want the audience to be aware they are watching a play in a theatre with other people, or do want them to only be aware of what was said (done, presented, etc). Audiences today are in the routine of curtain calls, and its hard to break them of it.

The curtain call is similar to the credits in movies; they usually signal the end of the production. But movies AND plays are based on a script, aka a book, which never have "curtain calls" (except maybe an "About the Author" section); so in a way it makes logical sense not to have either of those since you're just bringing page to stage (or screen). Imagine what would happen if a movie cut the credits out...people would never leave.

The choice of not having a curtain call may also be a structural decision that impacts (deliberately) the message of the play as was the case in Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom. The bleak stage setting of the detainees cell becomes when the play ends a long living silent reminder of their daily lives behind our (the spectators) line of sight as the actors simply silently inhabit the characters lives behind political bars. In those tense indecisive minutes we are challenged to think or act. And are mercifully spared the agony of deciding when to get up to leave by the ushers appearance to open the exits. I don't think one of us got up before then.

Several years ago, I was the Stage Manager in a production of Our Town. Since the ending of the play doesn't really fit with a curtain call, the director had the entire cast enter two by two for the beginning of Act II, bow to each other, then take their seats for the wedding. Interesting. . .

I think that not having a curtain call can be an interesting directorial choice, when appropriate (and used sparingly). I recently attended a performance of Festen in Long Beach, California, produced by Cal Rep (breathtaking play, based on a breathtakingly good Danish film). It's a strong, but difficult story about difficult things, and it felt very appropriate at the end when the breakfast scene that ends the play, just... continued on. And we audience members just... got up and left, finally, feeling awkward. But feeling awkward and self-conscious and *aware* seemed like just where the director wanted to leave us. And she did. Good show.

When one or more of the characters has died onstage, I don't mind the lack of a curtain call. It's not that we don't know the actors are still alive somewhere backstage; it's that I appreciate getting to leave the theatre in the same emotional state that the end of the play left me in, rather than the jarring disconnect of all the dead bodies popping back up for applause.

Short of major character deaths, however, why skip the curtain call? I don't understand the choice from a directorial standpoint.


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