Those Out There in The Dark: Audience Antics and Other Tall Tales From Off-Stage


Norma Desmond sings about them "out there in the dark" in Sunset Boulevard, Lauren Bacall dealt with a particularly sinister and deranged one in her 1981 film The Fan, and virtually everyone you know who has taken to the stage in a show anywhere around the world can regale you with stories about their wild and woolly antics. "They," of course, are the fans, the audiences, the people for whom theater is presented every night.

We recently asked a group of reliable, storytelling (read "overly dramatic") theater-types to share some of their favorite stories about members of their audiences and-boy howdy!-did we get some interesting and intriguing stories. And although some of them are hard to believe, we are assured that each and every one of these tall tales is, in fact, the truth whole truth and nothing but the truth…

Michael Edwards, who personifies the term "journeyman actor"(having performed on stages all over the country), but who is perhaps best known in Nashville for his 20-year stint at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, recalls a particularly interesting occurrence on a stage in Florida.

"I have several, but the most disturbing was while doing Fiddler on the Roof in Boca Raton... in the round…in the scene while talking to God with Motel and Tzeitel onstage," Edwards says. "I'm focused up and Im aware of an additional body on the stage between the children and me. I continue. Looking down at the end of the conversation with God, I see the eyes of the other actors wide with surprise. It seems while talking to God and their eyes on me…a patron had chosen not to walk around the stage to the lobby restrooms on the opposite side, but to cross directly across the stage between the actors. Lovely folk, those Boca ladies."

"During a comedic monologue in Southern Fried Murder, I began hearing a loud wheezing noise-almost like a tea kettle whistling but higher pitched," says BroadwayWorld Tennessee Theatre Award winner Michael Adcock. "I kept going, but as I did the sound became stuttering. And then the audience began to pick up on it also. I realize after, a lady a few tables in front of me was beet red in the face, doubled over laughing... with the zaniest laugh/noise ever. So as the audience realizes it's her, they begin laughing with/at her it became chaotic, but the more they laughed the more she 'laughed." People still come to me and ask how I kept it together during the monologue. Pretty sure I peed a bit trying to hold it down."

While First Night Award winner Garris Wimmer has more than his fair share of stories to tell, the one he loves best is about an audience a friend of his encountered during a performance of Grand Hotel the Musical:  "This actually happened to my friend Robert Baldwin; he was doing dinner theatre (in Boca Raton, too!), playing the Baron in Grand Hotel. At one point his line to Elizaveta is 'There is something I must tell you' to which an elderly, Jewish audience member blurted out "Ya Gay!" [It] still cracks me up to think about it.

Mikael Byrd, another veteran of that magic levitating stage at Chaffin's Barn, has numerous stories to relate: "I recall at least one gentleman died during a performance. We could occasionally knock 'em dead," he remembers. "Vomiting on a table, walking across the stage to use a bathroom up in the corner that was only part of the set (wouldn't want to be the Coke machine that night!)-I mean, they would often talk directly to us while performing-nothing to see there… breaking glassware… one man was over-served and peed into a plastic plant in the food line…the symphony of candy wrappers… discussing the play with each other at 40 decibels: 'She's put on a few, hasn't she?' 'I don't like her hair!' One tiny little mouse on stage in 132 years at the Barn, and right during the show this woman screamed like she was being murdered; I stopped and said to her, 'Sweetheart, if you don't bother him, he won't bother you,' but it didn't seem to help her."

Amber Boyer, who recently moved to the Pacific Northwest from Nashville, has a lot of memorable fan stories to tell, but one that sticks out in her memory is particularly galling:"I will personally never forget doing The Producers at The Larry Keeton Theatre a few years ago. Among other ensemble characters, I played Shirley Mokowitz (the lesbian set and lighting designer/carpenter). The audience didn't seem to mind the obvious Hitler/Nazi overtones of the show, but by God did they show their disdain for the song "Keep it Gay!" We literally had audience members get up and walk out during this number every night! Singing about mass murdering Nazis is okay, but heaven forbid we sing about the Gays! Sheesh!".

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.

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