Audiences behave badly at the Esplanade, and it's getting worse

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

The Esplanade says inconsiderate behaviour is on the rise among concert and theatregoers

When the lights go down in the theatre, the symphony begins. The first movement: Plasticky crinkling of a sweet wrapper, punctuated by an incessant dry cough. The not-so-melodic refrain of a child's cries fill the air, accompanied by the muffled strains of a latecomer outside the theatre arguing with an usher.

And the assault is not just aural - note the soft, white glow from cellphone screens lighting up the stalls, with the darkness of the theatre giving way to the occasional picture-taking flashbang.

No one likes a rendition of A Badly-behaved Audience, but premiere arts venue the Esplanade says that such inconsiderate behaviour has become more common in recent times. "It's been getting worse over the last 11/2 or two years," says Mr Ravi Sivalingam, head of the arts centre's hospitality and services. "Last week, during a performance by the London Symphony Orchestra, a man sitting in the second row was taking pictures incessantly throughout the first half of the concert."

When the centre's staff approached him during intermission, he was unapologetic and reluctant to delete the pictures. Mr Ravi, who has been working at the Esplanade for close to a decade, says that is the typical response from most recalcitrants.

"The majority of them will try to plead ignorance; to borrow a local phrase, they will try and 'act blur'."

While unruly audiences are a perennial problem, he says that cases of bad behaviour have been getting more frequent and extreme. "We're starting to see a trend where people arrive later than they used to," he says. In accordance with Esplanade policy, latecomers are not admitted to the venue until a suitable break in the performance.

A decade ago, controversy erupted when more than 50 latecomers were denied entry to a one- night-only concert by Grammy Award- winning vocalist Bobby McFerrin for more than an hour. While some patrons argued with the ushers, the Esplanade stood firm, letting them in only 15 minutes before the intermission.

These days, though, latecomers are becoming bolder. "We've seen large male patrons use their size to intimidate and try to bully female ushers," Mr Ravi recounts. "We've had some push ushers aside and barge into the venue. We've also had patrons use abusive language and vulgarities on the staff." When such scuffles break out, security and senior staff may step in. In some instances, the patron will be denied entry to the venue until he apologises to the usher.

Mr Ravi says: "It seems that nowadays, the approach is that I'll make a fuss, I'll make threats, I'll get abusive in the hope you will let me have my way. It's a worrying trend."

Such boorish behaviour not only disrupts the show for fellow concertgoers, but also for performers.

In a review of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's Gala: Renaud Capucon concert last week, Life!'s freelance classical music reviewer Mervin Beng noted: "Conductor Lan's opening beat to Debussy's music for Khamma was held up by the protestations of a restless child."

Artistic director of Wild Rice theatre company, Ivan Heng has also encountered such behaviour. The actor, best known for playing a Peranakan matriarch in Emily Of Emerald Hill several times over the last 14 years, had to halt his performance twice to deal with disruptive audience members.

He says: "When a cellphone went off, I hissed, 'That must be for you. Would you like to go outside and take the call?' In another instance, there was an audience member who coughed throughout several scenes. I finally said, 'My dear, you sound sick. Will you be able to leave or can I get you an ambulance? You can come visit me another day. But you must go now because you're spoiling this for me and everybody.'"

But not everyone in the arts thinks that concertgoers are becoming more rude. Ms Cindy Lim, corporate relations manager at the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, says their audiences are "generally well behaved".

There have also been no problems even when hosting secondary school groups of up to 500 students. To ease such newcomers into the theatre, the orchestra publishes a pamphlet on concert etiquette, which covers topics such as dress code, mobile phone usage and punctuality. There is also a section on applause - the norm is to clap after every piece, not between movements as new audiences sometimes do, which may irk seasoned concertgoers. But to Ms Lim, that is not a big deal. "To us, that is natural, especially for someone who is new to classical concerts," she says.

The Singapore Chinese Orchestra's general manager Terence Ho says that its audience is generally well behaved, barring a few occasions when patrons have turned up in flip flops. In such situations, the underdressed audience members will still be allowed to watch the performance, although ushers will advise them on appropriate attire.

Lee Mun Wai, a dancer with T.H.E Dance Company, says that audiences behave better now than they did a decade ago. In 2004, the then 22-year-old Lasalle student found himself at the centre of a brouhaha when he scolded a group of CHIJ Katong Convent schoolgirls during a performance in Victoria Theatre. The students, who were attending the Singapore Arts Festival on a school excursion, giggled noisily at the skimpy leotards worn by the dancers from the Korean A-Soon Dance Company.

During the intermission, Lee told them to "stop making that noise", punctuating his outburst with vulgarities. The incident sparked a flurry of debate on appropriate behaviour in theatres. Lee, who is also a freelance dance reviewer, thinks that since then, "there has been a lot of improvement. Most audience members understand that lights from their smartphones are distracting".

He says that even school groups behave better: "They're very easily excitable at the beginning, but they quieten down quite quickly."

lting@sph.com.sg

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