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To Boo or Not to Boo, That is the Question

Muppets_statler and waldorf David Fox, theater teacher at the University of Pennsylvania and theater critic for the Philadelphia City Paper, wrote an essay last week for the New York Times Arts Beat Blog, debating whether or not booing at a theater performance is fair.

Fox points out the prominence of booing in the operatic culture, and how "booing, like cheering, was a passionate comment on star performers" during the 19th century, when there were curtain calls after each act. Opera singers today still have to fend off jeers, and he cites the booing of Roberto Alagna in a 2006 production of Aida at La Scala as a recent example.

But Fox goes on to say that today, booing at the opera is usually not directed at the performers, but at the creative team, who audiences feel are perhaps misrepresenting the tradition of the art form. When the director or designers take their bows, most often they are the ones getting booed.

This presents an argument for whether or not the same sort of jeering could be appropriate in a theater setting. For one, Fox points out that the only ones bowing at a curtain call are the actors, and in some cases, they may not be the ones responsible for the audience's displeasure. Furthermore, the theater actor has less direct contact with the audience, not breaking character as often as in an opera, and therefore leaves little time for an appropriate jeer-fest from the audience. The theater audiences in general, Fox adds, "have less of a fixed sense of how things should be done."

Fox cites "Miss Manners' Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millenium" in order to prove that indeed it is okay to boo a performance; she contends that if you have the right to clap, you have the right to boo. But it's also difficult to really decide whether or not it is okay in a theater setting. Does it disturb the other people around you who may be enjoying what they are seeing? Is it offensive to the actors onstage who are not performing poorly? Is there a better way to go about handling performances that are so terrible that you need to audibly heckle during a performance?

Baseball fans boo

Instead, the most effective way to show your displeasure might be to just leave. I admittedly walked out in the middle of the national tour of Footloose in 2009. I wasn't a huge fan of the musical to begin with, but halfway through the performance I (and about half of the people sitting around me) decided that there were better ways to be spending our evening. We left at intermission, which I think is the most polite time to leave a show, but I feel like there shouldn't be a stigma of quietly walking out of a show at any time if you're not entertained. I mean, that's why you go to the theater in the first place, and if you're not enjoying yourself, why force yourself to stay?

That's certainly better than when I saw Umbrellas of Cherbourg in London, where I was either audibly laughing or saying "What?!" the entire performance. (Granted, I probably would've just walked out had I not been there on a class assignment.) More than half of the audience left at intermission, so my judgments were not unique, but it was probably disrespectful to that one older British couple who was sitting three rows ahead of my class, and who seemed to be the only two people in the entire theater who were not thinking "You've got to be kidding me..." throughout the performance.

A couple of years ago, I also saw the musical version of Lord of the Rings and remember laughing quite hysterically during the big reveal of the dragon, which appeared to be an oversized paper bag puppet. Sitting two rows away from the stage and completely visible to the actors, I couldn't help but burst out in laughter at what was really the breaking point of this overall ridiculous production. No one outright booed the performance, but many people did walk out during one of the two intermissions. (In retrospect, we all should've known what we were getting into. The play was entirely too long, with not enough good to outweigh the bad.)

I guess where I land on this topic is that booing really isn't a good thing for the theater. Where in operatic performances and curtain calls, it's easy to target who you are sending your negative sentiments to, in the theater it is much more difficult. The lyricist of the Umbrellas of Cherbourg (which was the main source of my outbursts of laughter) did not come out and take a bow, and the laughable qualities of the show mostly were not the fault of the actors.

Aside from that, it takes a lot to put a show together, and a lot of work to put on a performance. I'm not sure that I would ever have the heart to boo a production, even if it was terrible. I'm going to say that it is about on the same level of insult as laughing hysterically at parts of performances that were supposed to be dramatic or serious, and in such cases, it would've been better etiquette for me to have just left. Taking advantage of an opportunity to leave the theater if I'm not enjoying it is a more passive, less abrasive way to handle the situation. I mean, losing half your audience at intermission definitely sends a negative message to a cast and crew, but at the same time, I shouldn't feel obligated to sit through something that isn't entertaining.

What do you think? Is the theater an appropriate place to boo a performance? What productions would you have heckled from your seats?

-- Ali Mierzejewski

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