Many, many years ago, theatre was the destination of the rich upper-class to promenade on a Sunday afternoon and flaunt their wealth to all the passers-by. But we have moved on since these times and most audience members have as well. Theatre has a new focus now . . . community and enjoyment.
Inclusivity. It is an important part of theatre. And an especially important part for the future of theatre. If show are going to thrive well into the future then they need to become more inclusive – and on the whole they are!
The stories new shows tell are more diverse resonating with new audiences (e.g. Fun Home and It Shoulda Been You both exploring sexuality and even suicide in the case of the former show). The music styles employed on the stage reach out to non-traditional audiences (e.g. Hamilton bringing rap onto the classical stage). New inclusive productions cast actors and actresses who wouldn’t usually be seen on Broadway stages (e.g. Spring Awakening which introduced a half-deaf cast). And productions are even tailoring their shows to different audiences (e.g. The Lion King with autism-friendly shows).
But despite all these inclusive efforts, a concerning article arose overnight around audiences stuck in the past.
At a recent performance of The King and I, a woman brought her autistic son to the show and the child made sounds during some of the show’s quieter moments. But the distressing part was not the behaviour of this child, it was the behaviour of the other audience members. Rather than showing a bit of support for this mother who was trying to calm her child down, the audience rallied against her shushing and murmuring ‘Why would you bring a child like that to the theatre?’.
This kind of behaviour is wrong. Totally wrong. And it’s at times like these that the destructive nature of theatre etiquette is revealed. There are certain audience members who are so hung up on a certain type of behaviour at the theatre that when someone is non-compliant they are accused of being wrong and shouldn’t be at the theatre. But it is time that these kind of attitudes changed.
Theatre is an inclusive art but just because some productions offer autism-friendly shows doesn’t mean that autistic audience members shouldn’t be allowed at other performances.
The cast of The King and I have been championing these progressive attitudes spreading this story far and wide and condemning the behaviour of those patrons who shushed and tried to get the child removed. Emphasising the fact that it is a family-friendly show suitable for ALL families.
I have been to plenty of performances with autistic audience members who have interrupted at certain points. It isn’t a behaviour that is to be condemned. If anything, it is a behaviour that should be celebrated. I would much rather see a show where the audience actually showed how much they enjoyed the performance than prided sitting silently in the dark for two hours. After all, it isn’t a few noises made by one child that will ruin a performance, it is the issue of the other audience members who can’t get over a couple of distractions during a two hour show!
Check out the full response from this King and I cast member below: