Debbie Kruger
The Crucible: Action on your response
Vol.10 no.3, September 1992


by Debbie Kruger

It seems incongruous that the success of this year’s return season of THE CRUCIBLE at the Drama Theatre could have been marred by any negative response. The superlatives bestowed on Richard Wherrett’s 1991 production by critics and audiences, and the packed houses, were repeated in 1992.

Last year, STC subscribers comprised the largest proportion of audiences attending THE CRUCIBLE, with some school classes or individual students buying tickets, due to the play’s inclusion on the HSC syllabus. With the play remaining on the HSC syllabus in 1992, the Company mounted its production as part of the STC’s 1992 Education Program, rather than in the subscription season, while also keeping the doors open to members of the general public who had been unable to buy tickets in 1991. This, however, led to the incidents, which have brought into focus the Company’s policy on student audiences.

The altered proportions – over 75% of audiences were school students – led to widely varying responses to the play from night to night. A minor furore erupted following performances early in the Return Season, when disruptions in the audience disturbed fellow patrons, the play’s cast, and front of house staff at the Drama Theatre. Letters from angry audience members were received by both STC and Opera House management. Events at one particular performance induced on patron to write:

“At least 90% of the audience at this performance consisted of HSC students whose behavior was absolutely dreadful. This was exacerbated by the fact that many of them were sitting in incorrect seats and there was a great deal of moving around all evening…it became impossible to concentrate on the performance. This was extremely disappointing as I tried unsuccessfully to get tickets for last year’s season.”

Of course, there are two sides to every argument, and an entirely different response to that night’s performance came from one adult patron, who wrote:

“Although I did feel some initial reservation at the sheer number of young people present, their energy and enthusiasm proved, overall, to add to the enjoyment of the evening…In fact, their applause and general involvement in the play heightened the atmosphere and impact of the performance. When you consider how many students were there and that the vast majority behaved throughout, one can only conclude that the complaining ‘adult’ audience members were totally lacking in tolerance and bonhomie.”

STC Director Wayne Harrison says he appreciates that some students attending such productions do not understand the principals of going to a love theatre event. “Products of a TV/video generation they do not understand the etiquette which enables the audience to contribute to the live theatre experience. We have a responsibility to educate them in the ways of theatre. For some students, it comes down to the ‘hormonal factor’. They are excitable and very demonstrative in their reactions to what they experience, and this does upset some of the older audience.”

During the season it became evident to STC management that adjustments to present policy were necessary. Schools who were booked to attend future performances of THE CRUCIBLE were called about the situation; letters were written outlining the STC’s expectations of students’ etiquette in the Drama Theatre. However, these adjustments were seen as a precursor to a full overhaul. “My position has been this,” says Harrison. “ I don’t want to compromise the experience of students when they come to the theatre. We’ve always tried to treat them like adults. It should be an educative experience for them, yes, but one based on the fact that we treat them like normal people. We offer them the same quality of theatre experience that we offer subscribers, and we trust that the students will not abuse this. The vast majority doesn’t. We have a responsibility to educate our young people in the role theatre can play in society, and to discover and develop a new generation of theatre-goers. How we actually achieve this aim without alienating younger audiences or by asking established audiences to ‘subsidize’ this learning process to intolerable levels, demanded a trenchant policy review.”

While in London in June, Harrison consulted with the Royal National Theatre’s Education Department on their procedures for school bookings, and the STC is now looking at adopting some of those procedures. One tack is the disbursement of students through the house, seating them in pairs with their own specific seats, adjacent to students from other schools, to break the notion of being on a school outing. Another is to target schools by sending out a director and actor to do an hour-long workshop and provide an introduction to the play, giving students an investment in the production.

The National also limits the percentage of students per performance to 30%; this is feasible with capacities of 1500 in the Olivier Theatre and 900 in the Lyttleton Theatre. Financial constraints when budgeting in the Drama Theatre, with its capacity of 544, will not allow for such restrictions on plays programmed within an Education Programme.

Before the return season of THE CRUCIBLE, the STC had never ostensibly mounted productions in the main house for schools. Each play in the subscription season has schoolsday performances, but they are special matinees for student-only audiences, prior to which a theatre etiquette sheet and resource material on the production are distributed. The annual Shakespeare productions at the Blackfriars Theatre, presenting HSC Shakespeare texts in simulated Elizabethan conditions, have seen students general public mix amicably due to the more relaxed atmosphere, where audiences are encouraged to get up and walk around.

For many students attending this year’s revival of THE CRUCIBLE in the Drama Theatre, however, it was their first time in a main stage theatre as members of regular adult audience. Harrison stresses that overall the students who caused disturbances were a minority: “Some of the student audiences who have come to THE CRUCIBLE have been remarkable and among the best audiences we’ve ever had.” The positive feedback schools testifies to this:

“The text makes powerful statements about vital issues to be confronted by our society today…the cast was truly magnificent. I cannot find words to express my appreciation for their skill, their commitment to the task of interpreting their roles – all the things that are the mark of true professionals… I want to tell you that the Year 11 and 12 students and the other adults in our group feel as I did. The many hours in the bus and train to travel over 600km to attend the performance were amply justified.”

With the production being revived next year at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatre, the STC is anxious to ensure that the best conditions for adult audiences and also for students, whose educational and artistic experiences can be enhanced.

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