Is There A Way Past Fighting And Bad Behavior At Shows?

So either the disruptions at performances in the UK are growing increasingly problematic or the topic has become a favorite bete noire of news outlets because I continue to see stories on the topic. In the most recent one, The Guardian reports fist fights, loud singing, people talking on the phone, inquiring what type of sandwich friends would like to eat as they pass them around, and directly heckling the performers.

Those interviewed for the article attribute the problem to everything from the Covid shutdown, lack of education in etiquette, simple spite, and excess consumption of alcohol. While some suggest maybe actors have been coddled by behavioral expectations in recent decades which differ from the historical bawdiness of audiences, it is hard not to sympathize with performers who are being heckled while giving their all.

 Brunton has been heckled. “There was one venue where audience disruption occurred at practically every show and I just felt like I wanted the week to be over,” he says. “It’s so sad, to be in this position to play the lead in a brand new Disney production, I’ve had to jump through hoops to get here, and it’s just heartbreaking when you’ve got someone shouting at you inappropriately.”

This said, theaters have been scheduling dedicated performances specifically for sing-along and carving out moments for photo-ops like the Megasix section of Six I wrote about last week. Performing within that context has been rewarding for the actors.

Some productions known for attracting younger audiences, such as the musicals & Juliet (a jukebox show using producer Max Martin’s pop hits) and Heathers (based on the cult 1980s film), have held dedicated singalong performances during which fans were not just given permission but encouraged to join in. Erin Caldwell, who played Veronica Sawyer in Heathers, says the singalong left the cast “really overwhelmed”. “There’s a picture of me after the bows, head in hands, just crying because it was so emotional – I would do another one in a heartbeat … I wouldn’t be surprised if more shows do it in future.”

It would be interesting to see if venues increasingly schedule programs dedicated to providing custom experiences for different audience segments. There are already sensory friendly, audio-described and signed performances. Performances for sing-alongs, shared experiences for affinity groups (i.e. Black Out performances), could serve to engender a sense of belonging and access for those who haven’t felt the experience was for people like themselves.

Dedicated Performance Experiences Not Really Controversial Until Race Is Involved

Over the weekend I caught a couple news articles out of the UK about a production which is carving out one performance in their run for black audiences only. The show, Tambo & Bones, which runs June 16 to July 15, is said to be taking a page from Jeremy O. Harris’ show Slave Play which included “Black Out” performances whose intent was to fill all the seats with Black identifying audience members in order to provide an environment in which they might feel completely free to interact with the artists and each other.

“The theatre’s website stresses that “no one is excluded”, but the accompanying promotional material hints strongly that white theatre-goers would not be welcome along on July 5.”

In answer to the objection that this constitutes a type of segregation, it was noted that theaters already provide dedicated performance experiences to various groups.

These include a “socially distanced and masked” show, one using British Sign Language, captioned and audio described performances, and a “relaxed environment” version, where those with autistic spectrum conditions are not expected to respect the normal theatre etiquette of remaining in their seats and observing silence.

Granted, most of those types of performances don’t emphasize an exclusivity in messaging as heavily as Tambo & Bones is. This seems to be one of those cases where there is no bad publicity. For one group, being emphatic that this performance is for you has a great appeal…and can create perhaps an even stronger, almost magnetic appeal for those who are explicitly being told one performance out of many isn’t for them.

Slave Play created a dedicated Black Out page to encourage and help others follow the example of the inaugural performances. Among the productions who have hosted Black Out nights are: Long Day’s Journey Into Night; A Commercial Jingle for Regina Comet; What to Send Up When It Goes Down; Marie and Rosetta; Choir Boy; as well as Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play and Daddy.

While the page mentions that two of the Black Out nights for Slave Play were invite only performances, it appears tickets for other performances following this approach were more publicly available for sale similar to how the Tambo & Bones tickets are. (Basically, I couldn’t find any news stories specifying they were invite-only private events.)

Maintaining Relationships Has Been Key To Recovery Of Arts Orgs Post-Shutdown

TRG Arts recently released some data showing that not all segments of performing arts have recovered from pandemic shutdowns at the same rate. Comparing four factors from 2019 to 2022:  Tickets, Ticket Revenue, Gifts, and Gift Revenue, they report that Performing Arts Centers have fared best in these categories. Ballet had done as well in terms of tickets and gifts, but had seen ticket revenue and donor revenue increase.  Theater fared worse with classical music doing slight better and showing signs of improvement.  The data is drawn from US, Canada and UK arts organizations.

TRG credits performing arts centers’ relative flexibility with their ability to start recovery in attendance and revenue earlier than other areas. Overall, they say the lessons to draw from this data is the importance of maintaining relationships with audiences and having aggressive retention practices.

Maintaining relationships with customers and donors, keeping their connections with the arts engaged and active—appears to be a key factor in driving organizational recovery from the pandemic. There were many creative ways this happened during the 2020-2022 period, from digital distribution to small ensemble performances to Zoom donor and ticket buyer gatherings to use of outdoor venues until going inside was permitted or felt safer.


Plan aggressively for customer retention. As your organization re-builds, do NOT think short-term, but instead make every dollar spent on acquisition go further by investing in customer relationship building and retention. We don’t have time or money to waste now…every campaign must include follow-up, invitations for our customers to join us again, and more.


Add to this reality the fact that by 2040 community demographics will be wildly more diverse than today. The result? Arts organizations will need to become expert at asking and listening, rather than assuming and telling. The art of the conversation with our customers—we’re going to need to get much better at it.

Symphonies Telling Stories Of Local Relevance

A link to a great story came across my feed today about a Hawaii Symphony Orchestra’s production that was really focused on resonating with the interests of the community they serve.  Last month, they performed an original work, Symphony of the Hawai’i Forests for school children. (Instagram video here.)

The program featured new music performed by the Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra (HSO) accompanied by new animations based on kaʻao (legends) that were created for this project that tell stories about how we can connect and care for our forests of Hawaiʻi.

Teachers were provided with online educational resources by the Mālama Learning Center about the forests of Hawaiʻi to prepare their students for the topics that would be covered during the symphony. Meanwhile, classes were encouraged to learn a hula about the water cycle so that they could then perform together en mass at the concert.

This was a significant undertaking that required collaboration with many partners, including state and federal forestry services, as well as those developing the animation, dance, and educational content. Programs like this will likely go a long way in showing students how a symphony orchestra can be relevant to their lives.

Following some other links, it appears they offer programming for adults along the same lines so it isn’t the case that kids intrigued by their symphony experience growing up only have the core classical canon as an option when they get older. In 2019, HSO presented an original concert paying tribute to the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s successful circumnavigation of the globe in 2017 using traditional navigation techniques on the voyaging canoe, Hōkūleʻa. (I wrote about the 40+ year effort to achieve that back in 2017) That too was a huge production involving over a thousand people between the singers, musicians, dancers, visual artists, etc. Again it emphasized the value of local stories to the community.