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Coughing audiences during live performances…

So I came across this interesting NPR article about why audiences seem to cough more in live theater performances as opposed to movies. The author, Alva Noe, wrote of two instances in which performers actually lashed out at those audience members who were coughing, ordering them to leave the theater. One instance happened at the ART in Cambridge when performance artist Karen Finley forced an audience member who was coughing uncontrollably to leave the theater. Noe argues that all the coughing is not due to the temperature of the theaters, nor the bad posture of audience members, but it is due to the necessary skill level and concentration which audiences attending live performances must have. He says, “the audience too is performing, and that the audience too is on display. Surely that’s the big difference with the movies. You are not on display as you sit in the dark at the cinematic spectacle. You are gone. You are invisible. You are transported.”

Like many of the people who commented on this post, I disagree with some of what Noe is saying. I do agree that there is this unrealistic expectation for audience members watching classical concerts to sit still like statues and be quiet. However, live theatre is a completely different world. I don’t think it should be, but, at this point in our culture, it is. At a live theatrical performance, audiences are invited to laugh, cry, scream….all those things found in movie theaters. One person commented:

“But who is the average audience member at more formal classical or jazz concerts at fine halls? Not teenagers. Not even mostly middle-agers. No, mostly people over 60. And physically, they are the most prone to coughing and the effects of dry, processed air…I don’t think it has anything at all to do with boredom. Perhaps a lengthy sit without a break doesn’t help either, but that’s still not the same as boredom.”

I don’t think we can blame older people for coughing. And whenever an older person is coughing in an audience I’m a part of, the thing that bugs me isn’t the coughing, but the people shushing around the cougher….or the artists blatantly ignoring the person with the coughing fit. I love when I hear about actors on stage embracing those unexpected and uncontrollable moments that only be acknowledged during live performances; a ringing cell phone, a train passing, etc. I think it’s the job of the live performer to live spontaneously within the play, piece of music, whatever it is. I’m really disgusted by Noe’s story of attending pianist Keith Jarrett’s solo recital in which the performer “was berating the audience, challenging them to shut up and comparing this San Francisco crowd to anti-American audiences in Europe in the 1970s.” If we want live performances to live as long as movie theaters, we artists need to ensure that the energy we cultivate during a live performance is that of community and support, not hostility.


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