Is Booing a Step Too Far for Theatre Audiences?

The theatre is traditionally an art-form where audiences are not invited to get directly involved with the show. As an audience member, it is expected of you to sit quietly and watch the show, clap at appropriate moments, but for the most part to remain a peaceful and respectful audience.

There are of course moments within shows where audience members are directly invited to join in. In Motown the Musical, “Diana Ross” invites on audience member to sing with her on stage, in Hair the Musical, characters directly engage with audience members, and at the end of The Bodyguard, Alexandra Burke encourages audiences to clap and sing along during the final bows to the Whitney Houston classic “I wanna Dance With Somebody”.

However, these are rarities and only happen when audiences are invited to do so by the cast of the show. So when I saw The Bodyguard last week and the audience booed when the “Stalker” (played by Phil Atkinson) bowed, I was surprised and didn’t know whether this was acceptable.

An article in The Guardian in 2017 detailed that Opera audiences are quite renowned for booing, but not just in the playful way that is directed at a villain at the curtain call. This is especially noted in The Stage, where writer George Hall describes Opera as a “blood sport as well as an art” in Italy. In the UK, Opera audience boos seem to be aimed at directors and designers who audiences feel have let them down badly with a terrible production.

Some critics argue that audiences have the right to boo, claiming that if you have paid money for your ticket and feel let down, it is “an entirely justified reaction”. Writer Charles Spencer, does however point out that this expression should come at the end of the performance, rather then during it.

Directors themselves are even becoming to accept booing in the theatre, with Kasper Holten – Director of The Royal Opera – saying “it is becoming more usual”. He also says he doesn’t mind “if it’s a real reaction to something you feel very strongly about”.

The Royal Opera House

Sir Antonio Pappano music director at The Royal Opera House, points out that there are two types of booing at live theatre. The first is the stereotypical pantomime boo, which is the boo aimed at the villain. This type of audience reaction is usually fun and can be seen as a compliment to the actor for doing such a good job at portraying the villain. “The other type of booing, when something is disliked”, says Pappano, “no artist likes it, there is no question”.

Although we can all recognise the fact that theatre is an expressive art form, Pappano argues that “there are other ways to express yourself”, such as simply not clapping at the end of the performance. The type of booing that is aimed at the dislike of the production is “hurtful”.

I couldn’t agree more with what Pappano says in regards to booing to express your dislike towards a show. In my opinion, this is disrespectful and rude. There are multiple ways to show your dissatisfaction towards a show, such as getting in contact with the creatives via email for example, meaning there is no need to heckle actors who are only doing the job they were assigned by their script, director and producer.

I have never seen an opera myself, but I can only imagine that booing midway through a production is only going to distract actors, and encourage other audience members to become rowdy and can ruin the production further.

In terms of the “pantomime booing”, whilst I admit that Pantomime is indeed a very strong and important genre of theatre, it does have its differences from other musical theatre shows. In a pantomime, audiences are invited to be part of the performance in multiple ways. From the sympathy “aww”‘s to the “he’s behind you”‘s and the boos and jestering towards the villain, the whole pantomime experience is inviting and I fully support booing in a panto. In contrast, I personally see musical theatre shows as the opposite.

Therefore, even at the bows, I would argue that the villain deserves as much praise as the rest of the cast. Taking the example of The Bodyguard again, when Alexandra Burke bows, the audience is not clapping her character, but the actress who brings the character to life. We are clapping her talent and abilities that were evident in her performance. If you feel strongly enough to “boo” at the villain, this only means the actor did a phenomenal job in bringing him to life, and that is what you should applaud for that is what the bows are all about.

What do you think? Should audiences be allowed to “boo” at a performance under any circumstances? Let me know in the comments below!


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