Observing three audience members linger during intermission and then decide to depart yesterday's performance of the Monkey Wrench Collective production of Marc Ravenhill's Shopping and F***ing made me speculate about their motivation.
Throughout my long career in the theatre, I've witnessed plenty of walkouts. There's a tendency to assume that people are leaving because they're offended, and a similar expectation that artists are smugly satisfied because of it.
While there may be some truth in those perceptions, the reality is, not surprisingly, a bit more complicated.
After all, these days, most people are fairly well-informed about what they're going to see and theatres go to great lengths to publish content advisories: caveat emptor. So it's rare that anyone is "duped" into attending something they'll find offensive; more likely that they make a conscious decision to attend in spite of it.
Even so, there are many reasons people leave early: they're tired, they're hungry, they're bored, they've actually "gotten" it by intermission and don't need to see the rest, etc. (Hey, I've left performances for the same reasons.)
There are, of course, those who willingly embrace the opportunity to be offended and to express their dissatisfaction. I think of Luc Bondy's production of Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera last season that was roundly booed by the audience, especially when the director ascended the stage for his curtain call (as reported in The New York Times)
Perhaps the first time I'd ever observed such behavior was at a performance of Quebec playwright Michel Tremblay's play Damnee Manon, Sacree Sandra at Syracuse Stage, a major resident professional theatre company. Syracuse New Times critic Jim MacKillop described it recently as the most controversial production in the history of that theater--it took place 30 years ago!
At the performance I attended, a number of patrons rose from their seats within minutes of the beginning of the play--two alternating monologues about the sacred and the profane by a devout woman and a drag queen--and they did not leave quietly: some expressed their disgust to the actors on stage while others directed their venom to the audience for accepting this in "their" theatre. (Full disclosure: I will be directing this play at Monkey Wrench Collective later this season.)
It was thrilling to witness--and I must admit to similar adrenaline rushes when seeing theatregoers leave other plays I've attended or produced or directed. At least these were audiences with a "pulse"--unlike the tepid response accorded the premiere production of August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom which I brought in to Hartford from Yale Rep. (The fact that they could not recognize his genius was genuinely upsetting to me.)
I used to consider it a "badge of courage" to find that my work was provocative enough to send theatregoers to the exits, but I'm far more circumspect today: I hate to drive anyone away from the theatre. I respect those who opt not to attend because it won't be "their cup of tea" (but that won't prevent them from returning to see something that is). I'm far less tolerant of those who pay no heed to the warnings, come anyway and leave in a huff. They've asked for it.