Is it okay to walk out at the theatre?

6 October 2012

In her Guardian blog this week, Lyn Gardner asks "Is it okay to walk out of a play?"

I don't think there's a right or wrong here, whether it’s a play or any other kind of live performance. Contemporary dance audiences, in my experience, tend to be stoic on the whole, especially at venues like The Place where our audiences expect to be challenged by the work presented. They may even feel disappointed if it's all too plain sailing. I suspect they see anything unsettling or controversial as good conversation material for the bar afterwards. Extreme boredom or threats of audience participation are perhaps more likely to trigger early exits more than anything shocking or distasteful.

Having said that, I remember the late, great Nigel Charnock, during the time I was dancing with his company, recounting a particular performance of a solo show of his that was touring alongside our group piece.

The performance was at Dartington College, in the kind of intimate venue where the only exit was across the stage. A family with two young kids had, despite the warnings on the programme and in the publicity about the potential risks of what was offer, sat through most of the show, including all the parts that were almost guaranteed to cause offence, touching on all those volatile areas like sex, death, religion etc, (Nigel never held back, and having seen the show, I was amazed the family had lasted five minutes).

The performance reached the point when Nigel got undressed down to his underwear, without any fuss, and quite modestly, behind a chair (in other works he would quite often go the whole way without the slightest hesitation), at which juncture the family upped sticks and marched determinedly across stage and out of the door with the parting words: "We simply don't do that kind of thing in Devon!"

We never quite figured out exactly what "that thing" was, and whether they didn't do it in Cornwall either, but I suspect it was a case of leaving before the threat of being confronted with a full frontal nakedness actually became a reality: flight rather than fight. Or perhaps in the case of this family, who chose not to go silently - a feisty flight!


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