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Colin Marr, Theatre Director of the Edinburgh Playhouse, says the problems posed by anti-social behaviour from a minority of theatre-goers was highlighted during the recent production of Jim Stienman's Bat Out Hell when, despite being asked not to sing along, some audience members couldn't resist sharing their ‘best’ Meat Loaf impressions with those around them.
He explains, “While singing along in itself is normally something our front of house staff can control by having a quiet word with the parties involved, what is becoming more worrying in the increasing number of audience members who become argumentative and at times aggressive when asked to stop spoiling the entertainment of those around them.”
During the two week run of Bat Out of Hell, numerous disruptive audience members were asked to leave the Greenside Place premises, leading to attacks on the venue on social media and in the press.
“It's not the singing that’s the problem, it's when the singing disturbs another member of the audience and then one of our staff has to intervene. Ordinarily, the audience member goes, 'Oh god, I'm so sorry, I didn't realise,' but in a minority of cases they become abusive towards our staff and we have to ask them to leave as a result of that – and that just happened far too often during Bat Out of Hell," says Mr Marr.
He continues, revealing, “Our staff were sworn at, shouted at, right up in their face, and at another recent production endured actual physical abuse. Some of the people we have asked to leave have then gone to the press and said, 'They threw me out for singing.'
“We never throw anyone out for singing, we ask someone to leave because many other audience members are complaining about their behaviour or because they have been abusive towards our staff.”
He emphasises, “We will never ask someone to leave for singing or tapping their feet, we will ask them to leave for not changing their behaviour when we request them too.
“I recently watched one lady, as she was leaving, repeatedly saying, 'But I was only waving my hands in the air'. Our staff said, 'Yes, but the people behind you couldn't see when you were doing that.' She replied, 'I don't care about them, all I was doing was waving my arms in the air'.”
The culture of inappropriate audience behaviour started to become more prevalent around 10 years ago as jukebox musicals such as Dirty Dancing and The Full Monty grew in popularity.
“While we have seen a change in audience behaviour over time, what we haven't seen to the extent we have in the last couple of weeks was the level of abuse our staff have had to take. It has been absolutely appalling and there has also been some horrible stuff on line; on comment said, 'If an usher asked me to be quiet I would punch them in the face.'
“How does that make our staff feel? They are coming to do their job and on some nights they are scared to come to work. They should not have to work in an environment where they feel threatened.”
And he warns, “A musical is there for the audience to enjoy the performance of the professional cast. Our official line is based on what our audiences expect, so if 90 per cent want to watch the show and hear the cast on stage then we will intervene if other members of the audience are disturbing them.
“It's important also to remember that we are talking about a small number of people, 90 percent of the audience still want to come and watch the show without being disturbed by people around them, but in The Playhouse, where we have 3,000 seats, even 10 percent is a lot of people.
"So, if anyone is, at any point, violent or abusive and, as happens on rare occasions it gets out of hand, we will call the police and bar them from returning to the venue.”
It's very easy to avoid such action, he adds, “Please just do what the staff ask you to do... and please do not abuse them.”