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Arthur Meiselman

Fifteen Minutes Backstage

I’ve performed and directed companies for a wide array of audiences... the lower economic and lower educated classes of people who in America don’t know what theatre is or how to behave in an audience. The middle class, the humdrum bored and boring bloated blokes who sit constipating and interpreting all performance in terms of premenstrual syndrome and erectile dysfunction. And the upper class who keeps theatre, classical music and concert dance alive.

I’ll take the lower class audiences – they make a playwright’s writing-agony worth agonizing over – they make an actor’s performance worth its salt – and they don’t give a damn about directors and dramaturgs and all the other frou-frou functionaries who get in between them and the live bodies on stage. On with the show!

And I’ll take the upper class audiences too, of course – they presume to understand, they pay to understand, they can be challenged and they will challenge back. They find kitchen-sink drama, art for the common man (and woman and child!) dull, unimportant, unrewarding. On with the show, but down with the kitchen sink!

The upper class audience used to be called, “The Carriage Trade”, because that’s how they arrived and everyone else walked. Smart theatre managers always held the curtain for the Carriage Trade, at least 15 minutes – 8:30 start, 8:45 curtain, and then some. This practice was so prevalent, it became (as it usually does backstage) a superstition. Never start on time!

To this day, there are managers who swear by it. And, as the Fates would have it,  there are managers who are innately protected from this bit of bad luck because they couldn’t get a curtain open on time if the show was a command performance for the Queen (who, as we know, arrives by carriage and is always late!)

I believe in the superstition... I’ve tested it... once... never again. My shows begin 15 minutes after the announced starting time. That’s it, no argument. Sometimes, I’ve held longer, waiting for the last remnants of the Carriage Trade, of course. I wanted them, desired them in the audience when the house lights
went down.

This led me to progress to a more serious consideration. In Chicago, that bastion of bourgeoisie and bovine sensibilities, brought we, The Ensemble, a rather elitist performing company, to roost and hold court. Our repertory was almost exclusively original work. What was an ongoing audience irritation in San Francisco and on tour became an angry aggravation in Chicago. People came late... they missed the opening parts of a show... a tenth, a quarter, a HALF of the performance. NO!... said I to myself and then to the company... it’s explicitly and obscenely unfair. So we announced, and widely publicized a new policy. No seating after a performance begins, period! It is unfair to actors who have knocked themselves out to create their best work and unfair to the playwright and his vision for you to saunter and squeeze into a darkened theatre and take in a half-assed version of the performance. No! If you’re late, go home. If you have season’s tickets or pre-purchased a ticket, we’ll honor it at another performance. But you ain’t seeing this one on your couch-potato TV-watching terms. 

Wwwelll (as JB would say)... we had a predictably stormy response from some quarters, but we piled on the sand bags and held firm. In the long run, it had no effect on our audience numbers – it just resulted in more responsible, caring audiences. As for the press – we were covered by everyone – the Tribune, Sun-Times, AP, Variety, the alternatives, the media. And their privileged-or-else responses comprise an entirely different story.

Who hissed the loudest protests? Why, you know – the “burghers”. Who protested not at all? The “groundlings” – they always showed up 30 - 45 minutes early to figure out what to do. And the Carriage Trade? Right there during that privileged curtain-hold time, or they didn’t show.

Hasn’t changed much, has it?

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Arthur Meiselman is a writer and the Editor of Scene4. His latest books include The Lyriana Nocturnes and Of Modigliani in Midnight Mourning. He also directs the Talos Ensemble and produces for Aemagefilms.
Read his Blog.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2017 Arthur Meiselman
©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine

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