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Sunday, May 03, 2015

Cough It Up

When you perform for a living, breathing audience, the crowd offers a number of signals to signify their reaction to your work. Applause, of course, which also becomes the end-of-show payoff. Laughter, a good thing when presenting comedy, a disturbing thing when not. Assuming you can’t see their faces, there’s also a less-easy-to-classify dynamic offered by the way the audience sits and breathes. You know when they’re with you. You know when they’re in suspense. You can feel when they’ve lost interest, but that’s not always a silent thing. As ennui sets in, your audience will cough.

It’s the deadliest of reactions, even without the spray of germs that typically accompanies the gesture. It tells you that the folks you wish to entertain are mentally drifting away. And once that first person coughs, a legion of others check their throats and the staccato outbursts resound.

Cough-happy crowds have prompted performers to stop; to berate the coughers; to hurl cough drops their way.

Alva Noë tackled this issue in a piece for NPR, writing “So why do people cough at live performance? Well, one answer is clear. They are uncomfortable. They are uncertain. They are, very often, bored out of their minds. And they are under pressure not to cough.”

He goes on to note that many kinds of performance are difficult, if not boring, for an audience today, and seems to suggest we juice them up, like blockbuster movies, somehow. And he concludes that we must “embrace the audience, and embrace their need to make noise and be heard. Artists and audiences both need to acknowledge that this discomfort is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s what the audience is paying for. Coughing at shows is not a problem.”

I have to conclude either that he’s never been to the kinds of concert I frequent, or is himself a serial cougher trying to justify his disruptive behavior.

Not long ago I saw Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan perform on Broadway in “Waiting for Godot.” It was a Saturday matinee, which itself is a problem, riddled as that timeslot is with the more casual tourists who throng the city. I suspect that much of the audience had, like me, bought their tickets not long before from the TKTS discount booth on 46th Street. I also suspect that most of them had seen far more of the film and television work of these actors than I have.

Because it was obvious from the start that most – or at least the most vocal – wanted to see the stars cut capers. Any bit of physical comedy, and there was plenty, got an out-of-proportion guffaw. When the more thoughtful portions of Samuel Beckett’s text were articulated (brilliantly), I could feel a bunch of the audience check out. There’s a way of removing yourself without actually vacating your seat, and this was admirably accomplished. Those unskilled in that art retreated to the usual line of defense: they coughed.

There’s no precedent for “Waiting for Godot” in our daily life (even if those lives we lead too-often resemble it). That is, unless a theater-loving teacher lays it on us early on, which was my fate, we get no preparation for that kind of entertainment. Popular culture asks none of the tricky questions Beckett asks – nor does it ask the tricky questions of Albee, Ionesco, Shakespeare, and the like.

Popular music doesn’t prepare us for the challenging sounds of Berg or the extended grandeur of Mahler. Even Beethoven can be tough sledding when you get beyond his Top Ten hits. Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick put the sounds of Ligeti and Penderecki in our ears, although I suspect they got only the tiniest boost of interest outside of the movie theater.

Alva Noë can apologize for the coughers all he wants, but he’s ignoring the problem of an audience whose attention span has been wickedly shortened lacking the grace to suppress that cough or exit the hall if the coughing gets out of control. Or staying home altogether, as one elderly duffer at a concert I recently attended should have done.

He wasn’t just coughing. He was throat clearing as well, each blast carrying with it a productive rumble of sputum up his windpipe. Each volcanic outburst inspired aftershocks of coughs from others in the audience, unconsciously prompted to check their own throats by the blasts from his, none of them caught up enough in the music of Bach to summon the awareness that this might be rude.

Sputum Man tried to assuage his catarrh with cough drops, which he carried in a crinkly economy-sized bag that rattled like Marley’s Ghost each time he dipped into it. That, at least, prompted some hushing from his adjacents.

Some halls offer bowls of Halls in the lobby, which at least is an commendable gesture. But I fear that the default behavior for too many people is unthinking rudeness, prompting them to take cell-phone calls in restaurants, agitate their teeth with the flossing sticks they then throw to the ground – and cough when the entertainment proves too thoughtful.

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