Did you catch David Fox’s recent piece in the New York Times? In “Theater Talkback: Is It Fair to Jeer?” the Theatre Arts Program lecturer explains that while booing at the opera is a longtime tradition, jeering at plays and musicals is a murkier matter. (After all, he notes, “who would dare to publicly excoriate a boy and his war horse?”)
While Fox sites a manners book’s assertion that “if we are encouraged to applaud, we also must be allowed to boo,” he has mixed feelings about actually doing so. “If I were going to boo now,” he writes, “I’d establish clear ethical guidelines, including separating mere incompetence (which is just sad, and doesn’t deserve further censure), from egregious sins like grandstanding, upstaging and generally pandering.” He then says that booing at curtain call is the only acceptable time, and that in some cases, not clapping or walking out can make just as much of a statement.
Fox eventually concludes that he’ll “stick with the silent treatment, [but doesn’t] necessarily condemn those who boo. In fact,” he adds, “I wish I saw more thoughtful responses of all kinds. Surely, the knee-jerk standing ovation that rewards anything we’ve paid $150 to see shouldn’t be the only reaction open to us.”
At the time of this post, the piece had generated 108 comments on the question of booing, ranging from indignation (“Theater audiences are becoming rude enough as it is without giving them permission to boo as well”) to staunch support (“…the number of times I’ve stood on stage hoping the embarrassment being presented as entertainment would be openly condemned by the audience, is, sadly, many”).
Looking to delve still further into the great to-boo-or-not-to-boo debate, we asked others from Penn’s Theatre Arts Program to share their thoughts. Here’s what Marcia Ferguson—a professor who teaches acting and directing classes—said:
“Booing is the harshest form of artistic censure – and the most honest. It takes guts to boo, where chiming in on a standing ovation, which has become all too common these days, does not. Theatre audiences used to be much more involved in evaluative action — turning their backs to the stage, drowning out actors, throwing vegetables and eggs, and bringing large signs and banners to protest the actions of theatre management, theatre riots on behalf of boosting/lowering the salaries of popular actors, or to protest inflated ticket prices, all these were not uncommon as far back as the 18th century. I personally would love to see a theatre culture so vital that audiences played out their passions this way. On the other hand, as an actor, it would be devastating to be booed off stage. As David says, we need more passionate, and more intelligent, responses in the theatre. Perhaps booing in moderation should answer the culture of politeness that squelches vigorous feeling in audiences.”
How do you feel about booing at the theatre? Have you ever done it? Would you?