I recently came across this piece by Don Aucoin in the Boston Globe about the perils of ‘rogue laughter’ for theatre actors. You’ve probably experienced the phenomenon – at a particularly intense, tragic or dramatic moment of a play, an inappropriate reaction from someone in the audience breaks the mood.
It was opening night of “A Number,’’ Caryl Churchill’s dark, chilling drama about cloning gone awry, and Nael Nacer was giving it his all in a performance of nonstop intensity at Watertown’s New Repertory Theatre.
Suddenly a young woman near the back of the theater shrieked with laughter. As the play went on, she punctuated the performance earlier this month with loud bursts of merriment, often joined by more than a dozen other chortling spectators — apparently convinced, against all evidence, that they were watching a comedy.
It’s something that has always particularly irritated me, and I tend to attribute this ‘rogue laughter’ to a mixture of things: determination to have a good time regardless of what’s actually happening onstage, emotional tone-deafness, and a discomfort with expressions of vulnerability.
The article suggests that the latter becomes a particular issue in the intimacy of a live theatre performance – but I’ve noticed plenty of instances of ‘rogue laughter’ at the cinema, too.
If you’ve ever listened to Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s wildly popular film show, you’ll know that they have a code of conduct for cinemagoers, covering areas such as noisy food and stinky feet. But of course, you can’t prescribe someone’s emotional reaction to a film, even if you happen to quite strongly believe that they’ve got it wrong. Inappropriate, atmosphere-ruining laughter is just one of the perils of choosing to get your entertainment in a public space, rather than the privacy of your own iPad-bubble.
Because I often go to the cinema during work hours, I’m frequently the only person in the screening, and have the luxury of experiencing films uninterrupted by the reactions of others. I am grumpy and highly strung, so this is great. But also, sometimes, it’s not.
There’s a flipside to the annoyance of ‘rogue laughter’, and that’s the burst of collective mirth in a crowded cinema that makes a mildly humorous moment suddenly hilarious. It’s the barely stifled sniffles around you during that heart-wrenching closing scene, making it impossible to keep your own eyes dry. It’s the gasps of surprise and winces of horror and celebratory cheers that tell you, without a shadow of a doubt, that the audience has been sucked in by the story unfolding on the screen.
Experiencing films communally brings them to life. That’s a big part of the ethos of what we do at Damaris, and it’s something I’m reminded of whenever I watch a film in a packed screening. There’s a reason that cinemagoing persists in the age of Netflix, and I don’t think it’s all about the visual qualities of Imax 3D. It’s because happiness – along with all of the other emotions that films evoke in us – becomes more real when shared.