As a long-time subscriber and patron of Repertory East Playhouse in Santa Clarita, I’ve always hoped that they would get more attention — I find them a quality theatre that most people don’t know about. Alas, I learned last night that the theatre was suddenly in the news for an incident that happened during the Saturday night performance of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” — an incident that is getting them negative attention from a number of sources. Understandably, the theatre management are quiet — likely due to advice from legal counsel. But the incident, and the reaction to it, is gnawing at my gut (and I can’t have that over lunch), and sometimes the only way to resolve it is to write about it. I should note that I was not present; I was in Hollywood seeing “Zombies from the Beyond“. It’s lunchtime, so here goes…
Here are some stories that I found about what happened:
- Actor Fired After Tossing Anti-Gay Heckler From ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ Performance (The Wrap)
- Santa Clarita Actor Fired, Show Cancelled After Gay Slurs, Fight During Show (KHTS)
- Cat On a Hot Tin Roof Production Canceled After Homophobic Fracas (LA Weekly)
- How Would TPLLA Handle Something Like This? [Updated] (Bitter Lemons)
- Show Pulled After Actor Jumps Off Stage To Confront ‘Gay Slur’ Heckler (KCBS)
- Homophobic Slurs Set Off Audience Member-Actor Altercation in California Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Playbill)
- When The Audience Bellows Louder Than Big Daddy (Howard Sherman)
For those in the TL;DR generation, what appears to have happened: During the second act of a performance of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof“, an audience patron who was inebriated became unruly, shouting homosexual slurs at the stage and actors. The actor playing “Big Daddy” stopped the performance, walked off the stage, and physically confronted the unruly and drunk patron. Other audience members separated them and escorted the patron out. The actor was subsequently fired, and another actor walked off in solidarity. The production was cancelled as there was not an alternative actor that could fill in the role on short notice for the remainder of the run. The story made it into the media, and the media, understandably, has run with it.
[Edited to add (ETA) 6/7/14: Later posts by eyewitnesses on Facebook have added the following facts:
- "not one actor or audience member came to theatre personnel and compalined about the heckler before or duing intermission" [Barry Agin] In a similar vein, another audience member noted “no one on staff was made aware that there was a problem until it broke out into assault. No cast member, no audience member, no one reported anything being an issue. They were not aware of the problem in spite of the spin to the contrary, the spin that made it sound like bottles were being thrown against the wall and everybody was hootin’ and hollerin’.” [Jeff Johnston] Jeff clarified in another comment regarding the heckler that “Those working there did not visually see him to be over intoxicated in a way that required intervention.” and that credit card receipts showed that he only had two drinks.
- “It is a small enough theatre that the stage manager would have heard any “disruptive” comments being made from the tech booth. However, she did not. She is also the type that has no problem removing patrons when an issue is present.” [Tom Lund]
- In a past production at the REP, “we had two hecklers in the front row. Several cast members AND patrons alerted management prior to and during intermission. Those audience members were not allowed to return for Act 2. It should also be noted that this was a production where audience interaction was encouraged-however, it was determined that their “interaction” was disruptive to the cast and audience and it was not tolerated. ” [Leslie Berra]
- One audience member said: “I have never witnessed such a scary event as this in my life, in any theatre. I could not believe, I was watching an actor in a play, leave character, and jump into the audience and commit in my opinion, assault on a audience member. Now don’t misunderstand me, this audience member probably deserved everything he got, but the Actor handled the situation entirely the wrong way. He, actually incited the audience into a melee, where many other audience members left their seats and started throwing and landing punches, targeted at the particular audience members.” [William Friedman]
- After the show, when the actor who had gone in the audience was brought out to discuss things with management, “When the executive Director expressed his disappointment in how he reacted the actor blew up at him screaming expletives in his face on the sidewalk on Main Street to the point that both he and others who witnessed it thought it likely he was going to throw punches at Mike O. He did not but his reaction reinforced their concerns and, even though he had said he was quitting the show, O made it clear he was not welcome back.” This was not an easy decision and “came at considerable cost to The REP. They anticipate losing close to $6,000 dollars from ending the run early, not to mention losing the opportunity to win future patrons who would have seen the show because by all accounts it was phenomenal. Additionally there is the concern of what the revenue impact will be from the negative publicity” [Jeff Johnston]
First and foremost, I want to note that I’m only getting my information from these news sources [ETA: and Facebook posts], and my experiences at the theatre itself as a patron since 2005, and a subscriber since 2007. Being an intimate theatre, we have gotten to know the management team quite well — those people being the names you see in the program. We saw the production in question the Saturday night of opening weekend; here’s my writeup. For those unfamiliar with the venue (and it appears, based on the comments, that most of the folks criticizing the place have never stepped into it to see a production), it is an 81-seat black box theatre, with a small bar open before the show and at intermission. Normal staffing during a show includes the house manager (often an intern), someone staffing the bar, and someone in the box office. Usually one of the latter two are either the executive director or the artistic director, although sometimes other commitments precludes their being there (and another member of the board fills in). Based on the Playbill article, both the executive and artistic director were present.
Let’s get one thing out the way first: homophobic slurs and threats are never appropriate. I think everyone — the actors involved, as well as theatre management — has made that clear. [ETA: Later posts on Facebook have noted that REP presented "The Laramie Project" without incident in 2012 [Erin Rivlin]; here’s my write-up of that show]
So, what should the behavior be of an actor when confronted with an unruly and inebriated patron? How many theatres — especially 99-seat-and-under theatres — have policies covering that situation, and how many have communicated those policies to the actors on stage? Do theatres have an incident response plan for these sorts of problems? My guess (as a subscriber — and a computer security person) — is probably not. These are not threats that are expected in the theatre. They may train the actors on how to evacuate the theatre and maintain calm during a fire or earthquake, but not drunk and unruly patrons. I’ll also note this isn’t a problem in larger theatres, where there is a large staff of ushers and such that can handle things. In a 99-seat-and-under it is the actors, the audience, and the light/sound board operators. Often, the “house manager” is doubling as stage manager and prop handler.
What happened here? As I read it — as a subscriber and patron — an actor stopped the performance, got off the stage, and physically went to the unruly patron to confront them. Much as this sounds good, it was the wrong thing to do. It put not only the actor, but the rest of the audience in danger. [ETA: It also opens up the theatre (which is at its heart a business) up to potential lawsuits from the patron.] The correct thing to do was to stop the performance at the first sign of unruly behavior, send someone out to get management, and calm the situation down until management arrives to address the problem. According to the articles above, that didn’t happen here — the actor took matters into their own hands, and was subsequently terminated seemingly for doing so. [ETA 6/7: In all this time, there has never been an explanation of why the actor chose to go into the audience and not simply stop the show and report the incident.] Was termination the right approach? We can armchair-quarterback the situation, but the truth of the matter is that none of us were there — none of us know the precise reason for the termination. Further, in a situation such as this there are limited options — suspending the actor on a small run such as this is the equivalent of termination; in a 99-and-under theatre, there is no pay to suspend.
All the articles and comments are asking “Where was management?” My guess would be that they were in the front office or cleaning up and may have been unaware of the heckling, and when the situation took place, it occurred too fast to get them. I am sure — because I have gotten to know these people and know they are good in heart and good in intentions — that had they been informed they would have taken care of it effectively. But you cannot address a situation you don’t know about, and it is never stated that management was informed before the actor took action.
[ETA 6/7: It has been noted (see above) that none of the other patrons or actors felt the need to complain to management. Playbill reported that the artistic director (Mikee) had "warned the cast" at intermission. Jeff Johnston, in a comment on Bitter Lemons, clarified that: "I have also spoke with Mikee Schwinn and with the stage manager who both refute and deny the account given by Mr. Lacy of the intermission comments. Both have said that the conversation that was supposedly whispered to Mr. Lacy was actually a conversation that took place near him that he overheard between the 2 of them. The converstaion between them was that they had had very good bar sales for the night, not that the audience was the drunkest they’ve had. Please keep in mind that bar sales being solid for an 81 seat theatre at $8 a drink only require a few more people buying 1 drink than usual and also having a sold out crowd. This was a revenue conversation, not a doom and gloom warning and neither of them were aware at all of any act 1 heckling. This conversation has been embellished along with many other accounts from that camp in order to defend Mr. Lacy’s actions. Please also know that the REP has bar records and his credit card receipt showing that he [the heckler] was served 2 drinks during the evening.”]
I am not someone who believes in harping on what went wrong. There were clearly errors that occurred in this situation. The important question is: What can be learned, and how can this be improved going forward? My suggested take-away from this is as follows: Every theatre should have an incident response plan that covers dealing with unruly patrons, as well as other contingencies, and this needs to be communicated and understood by both theatre operations and actors. This applies not just at REP, but at every small, medium, and large theatre.
A wise kindergarten teacher, for whom I once student taught, used to always say, “The first time you do something, it’s not a mistake.” This was a first time situation in this theatre of dealing with a drunk, obnoxious, and unruly patron (at least I’ve never seen it happen in my 9 years of going to REP productions). It would be a mistake if it happens again, but we can learn from this what the correct action should be.
[ETA 6/7: Based on numerous other comments, it turns out this wasn't the first time in this theatre they've dealt with obnoxious patrons. Every time in the past, however, the situation has been reported to management, who took care of the disruption quietly, expeditiously, and without risk to the audience. A few examples:
- "during a performance of " Great American Trailer Park Musical" at the REP we had two hecklers in the front row. Several cast members AND patrons alerted management prior to and during intermission. Those audience members were not allowed to return for Act 2. It should also be noted that this was a production where audience interaction was encouraged-however, it was determined that their "interaction" was disruptive to the cast and audience and it was not tolerated." [Leslie Berra]
- “During Journey’s End, there were (non-threatening, but distracting) M&Ms that were the culprit of cast distraction. Cast notified management, and THAT was stopped immediately. During Laughter on the 23rd Floor, a door handle came loose and Mikee creeped out, screwdriver in hand, scaling the floor to fix it to ensure that the intended beat would be executed. During Mockingbird, the swing on the porch looked like it was coming loose. The ENTIRE staff was in the wings watching to make sure that it was going to be safe until it could be checked at intermission. ” [Christina Aguilar]
Lastly, for those of you thinking of writing off REP because of this: please don’t. The people behind this theatre are good people, and they put on great productions (for which they can’t seem to convince people south of Sherman Way to go see, sigh). In the time I’ve known them, they have always supported, loved, and nurtured their actors… who become part of their family. This incident is truly a blip from which we learn. Go to their next or a future production — the remaining productions in the season are “Return to the Forbidden Planet“, a 1950s and 1960s music-based telling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “The Great Gatsby“, and “Sherlock Holmes and the Suicide Club“. Get to know the people there, and you’ll see why I feel as I feel.
[ETA 6/7: I've encouraged others who were there and others who have worked with REP to share there comments here -- to make this a post we can reference to provide a public counter-balance]
[ETA 6/7: A few additional points: There are those that have questioned whether REP had a liquor license. They do. There are those who have questioned whether REP is officially operating under the 99-seat-and-under plan. I'm still investigating that.]