Why It’s Never Okay to Yell Fire in A Crowded Theater

September 26th, 2004 · No Comments · Los Angeles, Writing

The Wooster Group, Photo by Paula Court

Thursday night, after dining at our favorite Thai restaurant, Renu Nakorn, [excellent larp and satay, washed down with a chilly Thai beer… fantastic…], we headed out to the RedCat Theater in the Walt Disney Concert Hall to see the afore-mentioned Wooster Group.

The show itself was good enough, in an academic, post-modern experimental meta-theatre sort of way. I won’t try to explain the non-narrative narrative here, you can read about it if you like by following the Wooster Group link. It’s what happened in the middle of the performance that makes the experience blog-worthy.

The performance itself was rife with intentionally “non-intentional” glitches: performers “checking” with the sound booth if the audio was off, directly addressing the audience about supposed technical problems, adjusting the mics and other on-stage equipment. The intent was to communicate a larger point about the piece: the communication breakdown in any kind of translation or mediation of experience.

The performance took on the guise of preparation and rehearsal for a revival of a Very Important Polish experimental play by Krakowski, The Acropolis. The Wooster Group practices a very naturalistic brand of theater, so the alternating casualness of the framework of the rehearsal scenes was in direct contrast to the high theatricality of the Polish revival, which was in Polish. The audience had no way to contextualize the casualness of the performance, so there was a general disconnect and we tended to back away from the work: oh, we all thought, they’re playing with us, and we should expect a lot of surprises.

So when the fire alarm went off during the last act of the play before we were supposed to break for intermission, an act entitled: “Let me take this little opportunity to add,” the entire audience assumed it was a part of the performance. We sat in our chairs expectantly, waiting to see how the performers would respond. They casually accepted the siren and the flashing lights, and the soundbooth operator, who was in an exposed soundbooth on-stage, said, “Let’s take a moment to see what’s going on here.”

Still, we all sat in our chairs, waiting to see what would happen next. But I had one foot in the aisle, ready to spring up at any moment. Play, or no play, I was not planning on risking my life to keep the meta-performative joke alive.

The director of the RedCat came on stage, and asked us to calmly and quietly exit the building. He looked a little too smirky, like a non-actor being asked to play along, and while we were leaving, there were mumbles of conversation swirling around about the cleverness of the whole performance. Having the audience exit the building! Now that’s some creative experimental theater!

Outside, people formed groups, smoking, checking the bulletin: yep, we were just about to break for intermission. A few people left, but most of us [only the hippest of the hipsters go to RedCat performances, and there were lots and lots of hipster celebrities], stood outside the door just waiting for the performance to resume.

I overheard one well-heeled woman tell her companion that she was certain this was part of the performance, but it made her very, very irritated. Others laughed about the “ruse,” certain that they could see through it.

Murray and I decided to take a walk up the street to the front of the building. We turned the corner, and sure enough, there were two fire-trucks in front of the Disney Concert Hall. Firemen with axes were leaving the building, and security guards and the janitorial staff were milling around. We asked one of the guards what was going on, and he said that probably a sensor had been triggered, and as soon as the fire department cleared the building, we could all go back in.

We walked back to the hip crowd, which was still pontificating how far this theater group would go. Eventually, the director led us back inside, and we had our intermission as planned. The group, saying nothing about the cause of the evacuation, began again at the last act before the scheduled intermission, and then continued on to the second half of the show.

I wonder how many people still think it was all a part of the performance.

Category: Los Angeles · Writing

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