Policing Audience Behavior: Sticks, Lasers and “ZAP!”

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Policing Audience BehaviorLast month, according to an article in the Korea Times, ushers at the National Center for Performing Arts in Beijing, China, aimed laser pointers at audience members who were talking on cell phones or taking pictures during a concert. Offenders’ hands were targeted first. If behavior didn’t change, the laser pointer was trained at their eyes. [Onstage, violinist Chung Kyung-wha was momentarily distracted by the colored lasers criss-crossing the audience. However, she forged ahead with her performance.]

While not unique to China, the use of laser pointers as an usher’s tool for enforcing proper audience behavior does perhaps represent the next evolutionary step. But before pondering future solutions, let’s briefly plumb the past, shall we?

Sticking it to the Greeks.A Brief History of the Audience” published by The Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington D.C., traces the evolution of audience behavior back to primitive agricultural festivals and religious worship even preceding Ancient Greece.

According to this booklet, rowdy Greek audiences were kept in line by staff-bearers who presumably would prod, poke or possibly pummel offenders with stout sticks. Perhaps out of self-defense, ancient Greek audiences didn’t just silently sit on their hands. They weren’t shy about expressing disapproval – often showering performers with stones or other sloppy objects (think rotten fruit/vegetables).

The Lion’s Share. Following the Greeks, the Romans also boasted audiences who freely displayed emotions — hissing bad actors off the stage while also loudly cheering, such as during true-crime “dramas” where criminals faced ferocious carnivorous animals (think lions) as their punishment. Such threats of violence surely kept audience members from completely losing control.
Storm Trooper
Soaking in Shakespeare. In the late 1500s, Shakespearean plays were witnessed by a wide range of people in multi-level theatre facilities, with the lower classes standing and occupying the pit area – the ground floor surrounding the stage. Those members of the upper class, seated above, were not averse to spitting or dumping their goblets of wine or ale into the pit. Ushers always kept one eye overhead!

Future Shock? Just as today’s ubiquitous cell phones provide new possibilities in portable impropriety (distracting ring tones, sounds, lighted displays, etc.) technology may present tomorrow’s ushers with a solution for curbing impolite audience activity.

Once the novelty and effectiveness of laser pointers wears off, maybe the next solution is issuing ushers non-lethal electroshock weapons (think police department issue). This could bring new meaning to a “stunning” performance!

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