Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Noisy adolescents at the theatre

The marshmellow test was first devised at Stanford University for testing the patience of four-year-olds. A marshmellow was put in front of them. They were told they could either eat it immediately or wait until the interviewer returned when they would get two. It turned out to be a strong indicator of their ability to become self-disciplined as they got older.

I was thinking about this last night when I went to the theatre and found myself sitting next to a party of ten adolescent boys on some sort of school or "youth group" (if we still have such things) outing. They had two supervisors but that didn't seem to make a lot of difference. I would guess they weren't delinquents or school refusers. They were just kids who had never once in their lives been called upon to sit still and shut up and so they didn't. They ate, drank and muttered throughout the first act. Ten minutes before the interval one went to the lavatory, then another and then a third. This in spite of the pleadings of one of the supervisors. At the interval the supervisor apologised to me. What am I supposed to say? "Oh, that's alright"? "You know you are bloody incompetent"? The usher had a word with him. He had a word with the boys. A couple of them refused to sit where he put them and left the auditorium. The play restarted. After ten minutes the supervisor, clearly rattled by the non-appearance of the lads, went after them. He returned ten minutes later on his own. Given what I know about teachers' responsibilities on school trips nowadays this was a big surprise. The two major fidgeters being removed, the rest of the party were quiet for the rest of the play.

I know all the arguments for taking kids to the theatre or art galleries and I know they particularly apply to those kids who are not likely to be taken there by their parents. However I don't believe that civilised behaviour suddenly blossoms when children can see the reason why they should act in a civilised fashion. Children are not naturally well mannered and considerate. Nor can they always be reasoned with, as these well-meaning adults were attempting to do. If you have to be told that you are being an annoyance to other people - many of whom have been looking forward to their evening out for months - then it's probably too late. If these kids are used to interjecting throughout lessons and other apparently formal occasions, then it's no use believing that they're going to stop once they're in a theatre. If you let a child take a Subway sandwich and a bottle of Malibu into a theatrical performance he will ingest it, probably noisily.

Later in the evening I was talking to a friend who's an experienced head teacher. She said that at her school children were lined up prior to going on a visit and told that if any of them stepped out of line the head would be called, she would come and find them wherever they were and take the miscreant straight to their parents. It seemed to work. On the other hand a younger friend who had a contemporary working as a young teacher in Wallsend said it had become customary to append a "thank you" to any request made of a child because doing the same with "please" risked a refusal. I think the former approach does the child a lot more favours than the latter.


  1. A whole bottle of Malibu - no wonder they couldn't concentrate!
    I completely agree with you, and while not much of a theatre goer I've been put off going to the cinema in the last few years due to similar experiences. It seems to me that parents aren't willing to tell their children what sort of behaviour is expected of them for fear up upsetting the little darlings.

  2. For some years now I've been a reluctant cinema goer (i.e. only if the GLW insists) for much the same reason as your theatre experiences. (To quote Alan Partridge "I just hate the general public").

    Andrew Collins' podcast partner Richard Herring recently had a very disrupted cinema trip ( and while he was very understanding about the specific circumstances, it was the inaction of supervisors which again escalated the situation.

  3. I don't hate the general public. That performance of "War Horse" was played out in front of a rapt audience of all kinds of people. Even the troublesome boys were enjoying it. But they just couldn't stop making noise.

  4. Sorry David, I wasn't meaning to imply that you do!

    (And of course, in truth, neither do I. But as I age I'm finding it more difficult to tolerate public rudeness.)

    Apologies again for any confusion.

  5. Andy, I wasn't meaning to imply that you had implied that. I agree with you about public rudeness. But I try to keep in mind that most people are perfectly polite.

  6. Reminds me of when I was at school and our English class was taken to a matinee performance of 'Wild Oats' at Drury Lane. While I don't think we were that noisy we obviously weren't that enthralled by Restoration Comedy so half of us slipped out before the second act and spent the afternoon trying to get into peep shows in Soho.

    Years later I told my Dad (who worked in the theatre) this story and he said "but that was a really famous production!" Sorry Dad.

  7. Guilty your honour. I was once a teacher.

    One of my jobs was in New York, teaching on the lower east side almost 20 years ago. Before the gentrification of the area. Interesting times.

    I had the bright idea that the boys would benefit from seeing a real orchestra perform. The Met would facilitate such trips through $5 tickets. It was quite the experience for some of the lads.

    There was one class I dreaded. One class. *That* class that every teacher needed their reserves of energy and patience. Class 1F they were called.

    As with your example there were 2 ringleaders who could not sit still for more than 1 minute and were incapable of watching and listening for more than 2 minutes. The average length of a commercial break.

    Eventually I had to sit between the two of them because they were bothering the other members of the audience around us.

    Credit to the Met for this though. Their staff were used to it and didn't complain.

    I tried to organize visits to a recording studio and also SIR (big rehearsal studio in Manhattan). They either wouldn't return my calls or refused point blank. Pity really.