theater

How To Watch A Show

So you got a Groupon to a big show tonight? Or a half price ticket? Or won them in a raffle? You read about something cool on TripAdvisor? Or just Googled “something fun to do on a Thursday”?

Great!

Now you just show up and hang out, yeah? It’s just like going to a bar or restaurant or hanging out with friends, right?

Not quite. There’s a little more to it than that.

And, since it seems an overwhelming amount of people in Chicago audiences aren’t sure how to watch a show (I once saw someone texting during HAMILTON!) I’ve put together a handy checklist for you to make sure you blend in with the true theater-goers.

Follow these steps and you’ll be a great audience member in no time at all…

  1. Dress Up - Do it! Chances are you’re on a date or a work event or out with friends. Maybe you’ll take a picture as a couple or a selfie with the performers. You might even get dinner before. A little effort won’t kill you, right? I’m not talking a tuxedo or ball gown - just maybe leave the ripped jeans and flip flops at home. Plus, it just feels good to dress up, get out of the house, and do something new and exciting.

  2. Get There Early - Doors open at 7? Great, you should probably be there a little earlier. There will be lines and delays happen. If you’re driving, parking will probably be an issue. Public transportation isn’t always reliable either, so give yourself some extra time. When you show up late and you’re not allowed to enter the show, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

  3. Turn Your Phone Off - Seriously, turn your phone off. Not vibrate, not airplane mode. Turn it ALL THE WAY OFF. Don’t text or tweet. The screen lights up your face. It’s annoying for performers and for the people around you. Also, most theaters don’t allow photos or videos, and why would you want those anyway? You’re never going to watch that shaky, blurry, 30 minute vertical video of the show you just watched. Plus, you never want to be the one person who has to frantically search for their phone to silence it in the middle of an act. (I can’t speak for other performers, but do that at mine and I’ll be forced to reveal your deepest, darkest, most personal secrets.)

  4. Don’t Check Your Phone - “How can I check my phone if it’s turned off?”, I hear you say. I’ll tell you how. The show reaches intermission or you need to go to the restroom. You switch on your phone to fill the time and suddenly you’re back in 2019 scrolling Instagram and mindlessly texting your friends. You forget that a moment ago you were watching the founding fathers rap and getting wrapped up yourself. The second you turn on your phone you’ve cheated yourself of that experience. You’ve ruined the feeling those performers have worked hard to create. Don’t do it! Keep your phone off and get lost in the show. I promise it’s worth it!

  5. Don’t Talk - It’s one thing to react to something during a show. Leaning over to your significant other to say “That’s so true!” is quite different from having a full-blown conversation mid-show. I’ve seen people take phone calls, yell to people at the other end of the row, and talk loudly the whole way through a performance. Please don’t! Your whispered chatter carries through the space. It’s hard to deal with as a performer and incredibly disrespectful to the people around you. Every time I go to the movies I have to ask at least one person to stop talking. Don’t be that person.

  6. It’s Not All About You - You may be celebrating an anniversary or a bachelorette party or a birthday. You might be on a first date or out with your entire office. However, unless you’ve paid for a private performance, there are other people in the audience who bought a ticket for the same show you’re seeing. It’s not all about you. Sure, have a good time - laugh, cry, enjoy the show - but don’t let your enjoyment overwhelm the enjoyment of others. This is supposed to be an inclusive experience. Theater brings people together so don’t let your energy become too much that it pulls the audience apart.

I’m not just a performer - I’m a theatre lover.

I see a lot of shows - A LOT of theatre. My wife and I try to catch as many shows as possible. We go to the movies 1-2 times a week. We attend local discussions, theatrical premieres, musicals, improv shows, and concerts.

It’s how we spent our date nights in college and it’s our favorite way to spend an evening in the Windy City now. We can’t get enough.

But being an audience member takes effort and focus. It’s about respecting a performer’s craft and showing your appreciation for their performance. When we get distracted - or worse, become the distraction ourselves - we aren’t only being disrespectful. We’re robbing ourselves of something meaningful and unexpected. It’s up to us to meet the performers in the middle, in hopes of having a one-of-a-kind experience together.



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Show Notes #2,347

Got in a fight with the audience tonight.

Not a literal fight. Just a push-and-pull-back-and-forth-all-out-brawl for control of the room.

The crowd was split into sections - like cliques in a high school cafeteria.

There were the drunks. Unruly and loud, unfocused and proud. You just ignore the drunks.

There were the coworkers. A tight-knit group, out for their first work event together. It takes effort but with a little finesse the coworkers can be pulled apart for an hour or so.

The couples were there, on first or second dates, resting their high hopes for a good night out squarely on my shoulders.

And how could I forget the newbies? The noobs have never been to the theater before. They don’t know they’re supposed to turn their phones off. They don’t know when to be quiet and when to react. They don’t know how to behave, so you have to teach them.

Things happened tonight that have never happened before. I have a Plan A, B, and C for the most likely scenarios but I’m pretty sure we made it to X, Y, and Z before coming back to the beginning. As Murphy said, “anything that can go wrong will go wrong” - I just didn’t realize he was specifically talking about tonight.

I guess things didn’t go wrong - they were just different. When you get in a fight with the audience you have to pull out all the stops.

You duck. You weave. You dance around the ring, slowly closing in on the ultimate goal. You keep the drunks at arm’s length while simultaneously connecting with the newbies. You split up the coworkers and smile at the couples.

A well-crafted joke is a punch to the gut; a dramatic moment hits them like an uppercut. It’s an unending barrage of every trick in the book, but you still have to act as if everything is going according to plan.

And maybe it was. After all, by the time it was all over I was still standing.

And so was everyone else. A room of strangers, briefly unified in applause and mystery.

Got in a fight with the audience tonight. Went the distance and I won.




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Repetition

I had a music teacher growing up that used to say “Repetition is the key to success.”

He’d wait five seconds then say, “Repetition is the key to success” and keep repeating it until we caught on.

I love jokes like that, where you have to pay attention to the clever (albeit silly) word play to understand. As a result, I’ve never forgotten it.

I’m not sure that it’s the only “key to success” but I think repetition is an important component. I think he was mostly trying to remind us to practice our instruments when we weren’t in class but I still never did. That explains why I’m reading minds for a living now and not playing tenor sax...

When you perform for a living it can start to feel a little pointless. The days start to blur together because of the repetitive nature of life on the road. Usually it goes something like this:

Wake up early (I have alarms for 3:30 am and 3:45 am that I use every week) to head to the airport. I take the same bags, packed the same way, through security on my way to the first flight out. Then comes sleep, baggage claim, rental car, coffee, hotel, venue, set up, soundcheck, show. Then I re-pack everything in the same way and head back to my room for a few hours of sleep before I get up the next morning to do it all over again.

I will follow those steps today and tomorrow and the next day indefinitely for as long as I continue the current trajectory of my career. I keep setting my alarm and boarding the planes. I keep testing my microphone and saying the same words onstage every night. I keep hoping that putting in 10,000 hours will lead to mastery and mastery will lead to nothing but beautiful, theatrically resonant performances.

Over time you start to enjoy the repetition. An early flight means fewer delays and more time once you arrive. A good sound check puts my mind at ease and usually means I’ll have a good show. And packing my stuff the same way each time means I never leave anything behind.

Repetition provides the framework to the rest of the day so I can be in the moment onstage. Since everything else is the same during the day, I can set my mind to autopilot. I’ve been through airport security so many times now, that I could probably do it completely blindfolded. (Maybe I will for a future show…)

Once I take the stage, I’m in search of new discoveries in hopes of truly connecting with tonight’s group. Maybe something exciting will happen. Maybe I’ll have a creative breakthrough or reach a new level of proficiency. Maybe tonight will be my best show ever. Maybe I’ll be even better tomorrow.

That’s why I keep doing the same thing day after day, show after show. Rise early, read minds, rinse, repeat. Repetition is (one of) the keys to success.

There’s that old adage that says “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results" is the definition of insanity...but I prefer to call it a “career in the arts”.



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