Those Out There in The Dark: Audience Antics and Other Tall Tales From Off-Stage
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by Jeffrey Ellis
Norma Desmond sings about them "out there in the dark" in Sunset Boulevard, Lauren Bacall dealt with a particularly sinister and deranged one in her 1981 film The Fan, and virtually everyone you know who has taken to the stage in a show anywhere around the world can regale you with stories about their wild and woolly antics. "They," of course, are the fans, the audiences, the people for whom theater is presented every night.
We recently asked a group of reliable, storytelling (read "overly dramatic") theater-types to share some of their favorite stories about members of their audiences and-boy howdy!-did we get some interesting and intriguing stories. And although some of them are hard to believe, we are assured that each and every one of these tall tales is, in fact, the truth whole truth and nothing but the truth…
Michael Edwards, who personifies the term "journeyman actor"(having performed on stages all over the country), but who is perhaps best known in Nashville for his 20-year stint at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, recalls a particularly interesting occurrence on a stage in Florida.
"I have several, but the most disturbing was while doing Fiddler on the Roof in Boca Raton... in the round…in the scene while talking to God with Motel and Tzeitel onstage," Edwards says. "I'm focused up and Im aware of an additional body on the stage between the children and me. I continue. Looking down at the end of the conversation with God, I see the eyes of the other actors wide with surprise. It seems while talking to God and their eyes on me…a patron had chosen not to walk around the stage to the lobby restrooms on the opposite side, but to cross directly across the stage between the actors. Lovely folk, those Boca ladies."
"During a comedic monologue in Southern Fried Murder, I began hearing a loud wheezing noise-almost like a tea kettle whistling but higher pitched," says BroadwayWorld Tennessee Theatre Award winner Michael Adcock. "I kept going, but as I did the sound became stuttering. And then the audience began to pick up on it also. I realize after, a lady a few tables in front of me was beet red in the face, doubled over laughing... with the zaniest laugh/noise ever. So as the audience realizes it's her, they begin laughing with/at her also...so it became chaotic, but the more they laughed the more she 'laughed." People still come to me and ask how I kept it together during the monologue. Pretty sure I peed a bit trying to hold it down."
While First Night Award winner Garris Wimmer has more than his fair share of stories to tell, the one he loves best is about an audience a friend of his encountered during a performance of Grand Hotel the Musical: "This actually happened to my friend Robert Baldwin; he was doing dinner theatre (in Boca Raton, too!), playing the Baron in Grand Hotel. At one point his line to Elizaveta is 'There is something I must tell you' to which an elderly, Jewish audience member blurted out "Ya Gay!" [It] still cracks me up to think about it.
Mikael Byrd, another veteran of that magic levitating stage at Chaffin's Barn, has numerous stories to relate: "I recall at least one gentleman died during a performance. We could occasionally knock 'em dead," he remembers. "Vomiting on a table, walking across the stage to use a bathroom up in the corner that was only part of the set (wouldn't want to be the Coke machine that night!)-I mean, they would often talk directly to us while performing-nothing to see there… breaking glassware… one man was over-served and peed into a plastic plant in the food line…the symphony of candy wrappers… discussing the play with each other at 40 decibels: 'She's put on a few, hasn't she?' 'I don't like her hair!' One tiny little mouse on stage in 132 years at the Barn, and right during the show this woman screamed like she was being murdered; I stopped and said to her, 'Sweetheart, if you don't bother him, he won't bother you,' but it didn't seem to help her."
Amber Boyer, who recently moved to the Pacific Northwest from Nashville, has a lot of memorable fan stories to tell, but one that sticks out in her memory is particularly galling:"I will personally never forget doing The Producers at The Larry Keeton Theatre a few years ago. Among other ensemble characters, I played Shirley Mokowitz (the lesbian set and lighting designer/carpenter). The audience didn't seem to mind the obvious Hitler/Nazi overtones of the show, but by God did they show their disdain for the song "Keep it Gay!" We literally had audience members get up and walk out during this number every night! Singing about mass murdering Nazis is okay, but heaven forbid we sing about the Gays! Sheesh!".
Actress Jenny Norris Light, remembers another incident at Chaffin's Barn: "One night during The Foreigner, in the scene where Charlie is telling the 'story' in his made up gibberish, one elderly man said loud enough for everyone to hear 'I don't understand a damn thing that man is saying!'"
"Many years ago on a Shakespeare tour we were out there stumbling our way through Othello when suddenly most of the audience began to get up and head out rather quickly," recalls Ed Amatrudo. "At first we thought that we just sucked. Until finally one guy shouted out 'You got a fire up there!' We did not notice that the second electric was in flames. I'm still puzzled as to why it took them so long to tell us. Hmm..."
In the 21st century, the ubiquitous cel phones oftentimes will cause problems, suggests Stephen Len White, who recently played The Sound of Music's Captain Von Trapp at Crossville's Cumberland County Playhouse. "Just recently at Sound of Music, two girls on the third row were texting. I decided to point directly at them while singing the reprise of "The Sound of Music," they looked right at me. One stopped, the other kept texting, probably 'Dude on stage is pointing at me...why?'"
Suzi Safdie has another memory from Cumberland County Playhouse: "Years ago-September, 1976-I was onstage at CCP doing Inherit the Wind. You've seen the mainstage; it has two wings leading off the stage, one to each side. I was sitting stage left with a group of 'spectators' at the trial and there was a very narrow space between the chairs onstage and The Edge. The audience seats come right up to the stage at that point. I had to make a very quick exit up that space at one point, and at a matinee, some dumb smartass teenage boy decided he'd put his feet up on the stage. When I exited, I tromped right on him, because there was no way to tell him to move during a performance. He let out a howl and jumped about five feet in the air. Damn near disrupted the show. He was with a school group and I heard the teacher bawl him out for it later."
Disruptive noises during a performance are but the tip of the iceberg, of course, but Todd Rowan has a story from his college theater days that seems especially apropos: "I was in college, touring in a production of Cabaret when we played at an Air Force base. We kept hearing long, rolling, clunking sounds, only to figure out that it was empty beer cans rolling down the cement floor."
"Barn patrons do take certain ownership I don't think other theater-goers would consider," suggests Kim Thornton Nygren. "During A Bad Year for Tomatoes, a woman got up and moved a rocking chair out of her way. We happened to be talking about faith healing at the moment and Martha Wilkinson [who is now artistic director of the venerable Barn] said, 'The spirit is really moving tonight!' There was also the lady who would put a whole pie in her purse from the buffet. She did it every month, so that's when John [Chaffin] started putting pre-sliced, plated pie on the buffet. "
"My most distracting audience memory is of the audience we had one week during a nude charter cruise," remembers Linda Sue Simmons Runyeon. "They were too close and none were the kind of folks one would want to see all 'nekkid.'"
Runyeon's memory prompted another recollection from Nygren: "Oh, Linda Sue, you reminded me of one! Here I was just thinking local! When I was doing Work That Skirt [a "swing dance" show-we suggest you get your minds out of the gutter] at the Reno Hilton, a 'swappers' organization rented the entire hotel for a convention-and clothing was optional all weekend. The whole front row of the giant theater was filled with topless women. Again, not necessarily folks you wanted to see 'nekkid.' There was all manner of debauchery in that hotel that weekend."
"I was at Chaffin's Barn the night the man peed into the potted plant and then told Joseph Nobles, that he needed to take a valium," says Joy Tilley Perryman. "But my favorite was during Hello, Dolly! at the Barn and I was working the front of the house. Two elderly ladies (who clearly had some kind of dementia) parked their chairs right in the middle of the second tier aisle. [They] said they were getting spit on down front. Then one of them asked when the line dancing was going to start and the other asked for a paper bag to put her underwear in-this all happened while the entire cast was attempting to perform 'Put On Your Sunday Clothes.' I cried. But I did finally get them moved out of the aisle."
And file this one under the "definitely a first" category for Francine Berk-Graver, whohas a story from a recent production of One Kiss Café, performed at a nightclub in downtown Nashville. "I can't remember which performance it was, but it was during One Kiss Café and one of the restaurant tables was a part of our set. I sat down at it and began the scene. Just as I was motioning 'Sarah' to sit next to me, two little girls from the audience decided to move from their table and sit at my table with me. Wanting to stay in character, I just smiled at them and said, 'Well, hello there.' Then I continued with the dialogue as Sarah approached and sat next to me. We were flabbergasted that the little girls' parents didn't try to retrieve their kids, but we kept going. The girls were giggling and trying to get my attention, so I just smiled and told them they'd have to excuse me while I had an adult conversation with Sarah. We continued our scene, during which the girls eventually heaved a sigh and left the table. It was one of those 'is this really happening?' moments."