Why are audiences behaving badly?

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From Pink being given a giant wheel of Brie to Harry Styles getting pelted in the face by a mystery object, disruptive behaviour at music and theatre shows seems to be on the rise. But is it anything new, asks Clare Thorp.

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When Harry Styles was pelted with chicken nuggets while on stage at New York’s Madison Square Gardens last summer, he took it in his stride. “Interesting approach,” smiled Styles, who has also weathered kiwi fruits, Skittles and bunches of flowers while performing. But when a mystery object hit him in the eye at a concert in Vienna last weekend, he wasn’t laughing but, rather, wincing in pain.

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It was the latest in a string of incidents where audience members have hurled potentially dangerous objects at performers. Earlier this month Drake was hit on the arm by a flying phone. That came days after country singer Kelsea Ballerini was struck in the face with a bracelet. In May, Bebe Rexha was taken to hospital and needed multiple stitches after a phone hit her in the eye. A man, since charged with assault, told police he thought it “would be funny” to try and hit the singer.

It’s not just live music seeing disruptive behaviour. In April, police were called to a performance of The Bodyguard musical in Manchester when rowdy audience members reacted with “unprecedented levels of violence” to staff. At other venues there has been everything from “heated arguments” to full-on brawls. And in the US, one fan’s disruption of a Broadway play in December 2022 followed several other incidents of audience outbursts.

Across the cultural sphere, it feels like audiences are misbehaving. At a recent Las Vegas show, Adele weighed in, saying: “Have you noticed how people are like, forgetting … show etiquette at the moment? People just throwing shit on stage” – before warning fans not to try it with her.

Billie Eilish meanwhile, says this kind of thing, while “infuriating”, is nothing new. “I’ve been getting hit on stage with things for like, literally, six years,” she told the Hollywood Reporter. Dr Kirsty Sedgman, a senior lecturer in theatre at the University of Bristol who specialises in audience research, also cautions against calling it a new trend. “People have always thrown things on stage,” says Sedgman, whose latest book, On Being Unreasonable, explores widening divisions in society over how we use public space. “Whether that’s fruit as a way to signify displeasure, or softer items like underwear and flowers as a signal of adoration.” Back In 1775, a performer in Sheridan’s The Rivals stopped the show when he was pelted with an apple.

So are things really any worse now? “If you’d asked me that before lockdown, I would have said that things have always been thus,” says Sedgman. “As far back as the ancient Greeks people like Plato were complaining about what he called a vicious theatrocracy, where audiences who were previously happy to sit quietly suddenly wanted to use their tongues and start cheering and screaming. And the norm in Shakespeare’s time was to watch performances at the same time as more bodily forms of consumption, such as eating and drinking and talking and socialising.”

The idea that audiences should sit and listen quietly is a relatively recent expectation. Post-pandemic though, Sedgman does think something has changed. “To some extent we’ve been having these debates about live performance, whether the norm should be more quiet and subdued or more active and exuberant for a very long time, but I work with a lot of people throughout the cultural industries, and the message seems to be pretty much unanimous that since lockdown ended, the situation has fundamentally shifted.”

That bears out in a report by the UK’s Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union (Bectu) which found that 90% of theatre staff had witnessed bad behaviour – and 70% believed things had got worse since the pandemic.

“It’s not all audiences by any means, but for a lot of people, there’s a growing sense of what I call ‘don’t-tell-me-what-to-do-itis’,” says Sedgman. She believes we’re seeing a breakdown in social contracts – the behavioural norms and rules of engagements that keep us all ticking along together nicely.

People are thirsty for live entertainment again, but increasingly want it on their terms – especially when ticket prices are soaring. “People are coming with actively competing ideals about what they want that experience to be like,” says Sedgman. “Some people want to not be disturbed by others chatting or eating or drinking, or have phones blocking their way. Other people want to maybe take a step backwards to the time when the arts were a more sociable experience. The difficulty is that those pleasures are irreconcilable.”

Why though, would a so-called fan of an artist want to risk hurting them by throwing things? One explanation is that social media has fuelled parasocial relationships – in which fans develop a strong but one-sided connection with celebrities. “Live events are one place where you actually come into that same space with your beloved celebrity,” says Sedgman. “So for some people, perhaps there’s a desire to break through that fourth wall separating them from us and to actively insert your presence into their world.” Giving Pink a giant wheel of Brie or – like one fan recently – throwing your mother’s ashes to her, is certainly one way to make her aware of your existence.

Many artists though, are now appealing directly to fans to stop throwing things. One UK theatre group has toned down its marketing material to discourage rowdy attendees. But there’s a balance between keeping people safe and over-policing behaviour. At a recent gig, Taylor Swift intervened to stop a security guard from allegedly harassing fans.

Sedgman works with venues to develop policies that allow audiences to engage, while also protecting the safety of staff, performers and other audience members. “Of course we have to draw lines between acceptable and unacceptable, reasonable and unreasonable, legal and illegal,” she says. “But we also need to think carefully about who those rules privilege and prioritise and who they exclude or even harm. It’s young people, working-class people, people of colour who tend to have their behaviour surveilled and judged.”

Meanwhile though, she thinks recent incidents could be a bellwether for deeper issues. “Live performance has always been a laboratory space for figuring out what it means to be together,” she explains. “Pretty much every time society goes through a big period of unrest, that unrest starts to ferment and explode in live performance first. Audiences are a kind of canary in the coal mine for much bigger frustrations and divisions starting to bubble over. It’s important that we pay attention to what’s happening in the cultural sphere. It’s an indicator of what’s happening to us as a society.”

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