Monday, August 10, 2009

TBA's Sabrina Lazarus Wants To Ban Alcohol In Theaters - I Don't

First of all, and I want to make this absolutely clear, I believe there is plenty of room in the market for all types of theater, audiences, plays, shows, acts, sets, production value, talent etc. Theater is whatever you want it to be. There are no rules. There is no status quo. It is what you make it.

Last week, Sabrina Lazarus, a marketing person at TBA, put out a post titled, "Why I'm Glad We Don't Live in Shakespearean England (Or Modern-Day England, For That Matter)," in which, she quoted me ... the following is my response:

(WARNING: this will be an in-depth response, quoting Ms. Lazarus, offering plenty of good natured teasing and some honest rebuttals)

I'll start where everyone starts, the title of your piece, "Why I'm Glad We Don't Live in Shakespearean England (Or Modern-Day England, For That Matter)". Sabrina, why do you hate the British? I mean, I know that whole taxation without representation thing was bad and all, but now those Limeys have given the world things like "The Office" and the ever endearing David Milliband. Really, they're not that bad, and I'm sure you'd love the English countryside in the spring.

Your prompt for writing was the piece in the Times Online about positively rowdy and, occasionally, randy behavior at theaters in London. The Times article can be found here, while Ms. Lazarus' response can be found here. The rest of this post will consist of quotes from Ms. Lazarus and my rebuttal to those quotes.

On to the quoting:

"Personally, I don't think it makes any sense to allow alcohol into a theatre."

Or anywhere else for that matter, especially bars, restaurants, private homes, concerts, family dinners, football games, office Christmas parties or fishing trips.

"I don't see people chugging beers at the movies."

Go to a movie theater in Europe or Canada, there are lots of theaters that sell beer and wine. There's a movie theater in Athens, Georgia, whose claim to fame is that they sell alcohol, and allow you to brown bag it and smoke in the theater. Go to any movie theater at 9pm on a Friday and closely watch the underage patrons ... you'll find beer chugging is not all that rare.

"Once upon a time it was the norm for all food and drink to be banned during performance."

Really, when? Prohibition? The Reformation? The first performance of Cirque du Soleil? To put it into perspective, alcohol isn't even banned from Church - Jesus loved the stuff he turned water into wine to the delight of the masses.

"You can eat at the movies, but only because the sound is cranked up to a level where chewing isn't going to bother anyone too much. In live theatre, ear-splitting sound would be distracting and take away from the show."

I have eaten meals with many, many people, but never have my ears been deafened from the sound of one's chewing ... I'm just sayin'.

"I'm sure it's not just the poor folk being disrespectful."

But, to be clear, some of the "poor folk" are clearly being disrespectful?

"And I'm sure there are many who can't afford high ticket prices who are sitting completely respectfully, enjoying performances in a more mature way."

This is where you lose me, Sabrina, because, to me, it sounds like if I don't enjoy a performance in a fashion that you deem "respectful," I am somehow immature. Different strokes, for different folks, Ms. Lazarus.

"Back in Shakespeare's time ... being an actor was no better than being a prostitute ... so rude behavior in the theatre made just a bit more sense."

What about back in Thespis' time, when actors were priests conducting religious rituals honoring Dionysus, the god of wine, the "inspirer of ritual madness and ecstasy." Was wine banned back then? Or was there only a ban on overtly loud cheering? Or did they ban fornicating? Your above point would hold up far better if the questions I just posed were rhetorical, unfortunately, those questions have very real answers. Drinking, cheering and fornicating were all encouraged and the "actors" were some of the most respected members of the community.

You then go on to quote me and posit your solution to the "problem" in the West End - ban alcohol, and closely monitor the sobriety of patrons.

In all honestly, Ms. Lazarus, I am astounded by your "solution." As I said at the top of this post, there is plenty of room in the market to satisfy every potential ticket buyer's interest. If that interest just so happens to be a "respectful" and "mature" audience experience, great, there are many venues which are happy to oblige. If, however, that ticket buyer's interest lies in a rowdy and raucous evening, there need to be venues which can supply that as well. If those interests are somewhere in between, guess what, there are even more venues which will be suitable.

Banning alcohol from all theaters is not only bad business, but reveals an amazingly myopic view of what Theater should be. While the experience you want to take away from a night at the theater may well line up with the wishes of a majority of current theatergoers, who's to say that the majority of the public (which, mind you, does not attend any type of theater on any regular basis, but does consume alcohol on a regular basis) is also interested in that same experience? Furthermore, banning alcohol punishes anyone who enjoys a glass of wine during a show but does not feel compelled to relieve themselves on the stage, ie, responsible drinkers (the majority of drinkers). Who's to say that if venues began banning alcohol, this subset of patrons wouldn't decide to instead head to a bar for some music, and, of course, drinks? Not to mention, for small theaters, alcohol sales in one evening can easily pay someone to run box office and concessions while still kicking money back to the venue or production.

I will also point out here, that while there are extreme examples of rowdy behavior cited in the Times article, London theater in the past six months is having a record year, despite the worldwide economic downturn. "Figures released by the Society of London Theaters (SOLT) for the first six months of 2009 (Jan. 1-July 18) show attendance up 2.5% and box office receipts up 3.5% over the same period last year."

Banning alcohol is not the answer. It's reactionary, bad for business, and limits what one can experience at a theater. As a representative of Theatre Bay Area, and by proxy the San Francisco theater community as a whole, I'd advise you use more discretion before labeling what is and is not "respectful" or "mature," and especially before doling out advice which could very well be detrimental to the community at large.

I look forward to your response.


-Carl Benson


Clay Lord said...

Dear Carl,

I'm responding to your post because Sabrina is my intern, and I'm the one who asked her for her thoughts on the original Times article. I encouraged her to react to the article in her own way, and she did, and I have to say I was impressed with the breadth of her response, the amount that she thought about it, and the unique angle she took on the issue. Which is not to say that I totally agree with her (as anyone who has kept up with the Chatterbox might know, I do think alcohol (in moderation) is a good possible addition to the theatre experience). And I'm very excited to say that, because having a diversity of opinions that strike up conversations about the field is what we should be doing.

We founded the Chatterbox as a sounding board for staff's personal points of view. There is much said there that we as a staff don't all agree on, and nor should we, and I believe that part of a healthy blog culture is encouraging that type of openness about opinions. That said, when I see things like your statement, "As a representative of Theatre Bay Area, and by proxy the San Francisco theater community as a whole..," it frustrates me. Theatre Bay Area is for a lot of things -- free expression and experimentation in the form, success of our companies however they come by it, the development and retention of new audiences (with whatever perks are needed). But we as a company don't have a stated stance on alcohol in theatre, and our staff members don't pretend to speak for the community at large on such issues. We don't advocate for or against specific marketing or development techniques, just like we don't have an official stance on whether a theatre company should be structured as a for- or non-profit (although staff members have written blog entries with their personal opinions on that topic too) -- we advise (and opine) about what we think works and doesn't.

I enjoy talking with you, and I think that you sometimes have great, interesting things to say. But you, like the best bloggers, also find incendiary and insulting ways to say things that, as far as I can tell, are designed mostly to generate attention. This frustrates me. I'd love to elevate the level of discourse, have good hard discussions about things like the upside and downside of bringing alcohol into a space that hasn't had it before (and to people who sometimes don't know how to handle themselves). I'm not at all interested in having a discussion with you about such issues if you're really going to tag them with phrases like "profoundly stupid." That doesn't raise the discourse, as I'm sure you know.

Just so it's stated, and stated clearly -- Sabrina is my intern, and was asked to write that (and other) blog entries as part of her internship, as an exercise in theatre writing. That entry (and any of the entries on Chatterbox) are the ruminations of the author, complete with his or her own opinions and suggestions, and are not meant as official policy or position statements for Theatre Bay Area.

Dan Wilson said...

I agree with both statements: the argument to remove alcohol from theatres is shortsighted and would not only limit the options of what a theatre could be, but would also bankrupt the vast majority of struggling theatres that are barely scraping by as it is. There's a reason Chicago has a storefront theatre on every other block: the city gives them liquor licenses.

I also agree that the acerbic and snarky nature of Carl's response doesn't increase the quality of discourse. Also, some of Ms. Lazarus' comments were taken out of context (her quip about "just the poor people" was clearly intended to point out the elitism of blaming low prices for bad behavior and by taking it out of context she was made to appear to be supporting the bias she was denouncing).

That said, if TBA does not wish for articles posted on their website, by their staff, to be taken by casual readers as the opinions of the organization, it would do well to put a disclaimer at the end of articles stating "the opinions stated are those of the poster and in no way represent the views of TBA". Without such an explicit statement, TBA *does* come across as hostile to small theatres who are already having a hard enough time competing with bands, bars, and Netflix.

Finally, as the Times article discusses, the problem is hardly confined to acts of inebriation (although those *are* the most gross examples). The problem is a much larger one of public propriety and manners, regardless of if you're drunk or not. Not allowing alcohol into a theatre doesn't do much if people are accustomed to general rudeness or (as was pointed out, again in the Times article) people *show up* to the theatre three sheets to the wind.

In fact, nowhere in the article do I see any indication that people are getting hammered at the theatre, but are already gone when they walk in the door.

And yes, that means you need bouncers in theatres. Drunks are going to cause just as much of a fuss if you don't let them in as they do once they're in their seats, and if you're going to evict them/prevent them from entering, you're going to need a bouncer. Nothing short of Prohibition will help that issue, and we all know how well *that* works.

Carl Benson said...

Dear Clay,

You said, "I enjoy talking with you, and I think that you sometimes have great, interesting things to say. But you, like the best bloggers, also find incendiary and insulting ways to say things that, as far as I can tell, are designed mostly to generate attention."

Wrong - dead wrong. I find "incendiary and insulting" ways to say things because I am passionate about theater, specifically what I am saying, and what others have to say about it. And when someone gets on his or her high horse about the morality of drinking, I become, and rightly so I think, rather offended.

Also, whether you want to admit it or not, the Chatterbox blog absolutely speaks for TBA - it is the collective opinions of TBA employees and as such, gives a pretty fair idea of the viewpoints driving the company.

And while TBA may not have an "official stance" on "specific marketing or development techniques" or for-profit vs. not-for-profit, again, it is abundantly clear from the programs TBA runs where the company stands (Free Night of Theater and The Lemonade Fund are great examples).

I believe your comments come after what you perceive to be a personal attack on one of your interns. I can assure you it is not. What I am attacking is an idea (banning alcohol), an idea that has been put forward time and again by countless people, and one, might I add, that has never worked.

Were it a personal attack, I would have pointed out that the first paragraph of the post is quite misleading as it claims that there have been multiple accounts of urinating on stage and fornicating in the bathrooms, when, in fact, those were isolated incidents. The post also fails to point out that London theaters are having a record year at the box office.

Chatterbox does not exist in a vacuum, and the words posted on that site have power, especially because they come from the staff of an organization which very literally represents the interests of the Bay Area theater community. When those words begin to label specific types of behavior disrespectful and immature and uncivilized, TBA should be prepared for a little snark in return (especially when it's coming from someone who was quoted in the post in question).


- Carl Benson

Sabrina Lazarus said...

Here's how I feel about all of this. I don't mean ban alcohol in all theatres, and if that's how it came across I apologize. I mean in the mainstream theatres where rowdiness doesn't make sense for the performance it shouldn't be allowed in the auditorium. It can and should be possible to buy alcohol in the lobby, but it should not find its way into the performing venue, in my personal opinion--at least not at the theatres for which that would not be apropos, and as the article shows, inebriation is in fact causing problems. While eliminating alcohol in the actual auditorium would not solve the problem, I think it might help.

The theatres that want to allow alcohol in their theatres during performance can and should. But I don't think the theatres this article referred to were those theatres.

And with reference to food -- it depends what you're eating. The sound of food being opened, food being chewed, food packaging being rustled...all of that can be extremely distracting, at least if you're in close proximity. Maybe I'm just sensitive, but I'm sure I'm not the only one.

I also believe you missed some of the sarcasm in my post. The use of terms like "poor folk" was meant as sarcasm. And yes, I do think it is immature to be drunk and rowdy in a place that doesn't invite that. Bars thrive on that atmosphere. Many theatres don't -- perhaps not yours, but many.

Venues can and should cater to a drunk and rowdy audience if they like. But the theatres in question here don't seem to like that, and at the types of performances spoken of in that article, it seems to me to be inappropriate. And I doubt that any theatre would appreciate someone urinating in the auditorium during a performance. That's just disgusting.

So there you have it. Feel free to disagree, but I stick by my opinion of the situation.

Matthew said...

Well I’m glad that’s all settled.

Long live freedom of speech for everyone.

Here’s my question in regards to theatre and drinking in response to Clay’s comment

“But we (TBA) as a company don't have a stated stance on alcohol in theatre.”

Does that mean that TBA wouldn’t help to work with the city to make it less complicated and costly for theater venues to sell beer and wine, legally, for their particular needs?

My thought is regardless of your opinion on drinking and eating in theaters, the truth is many companies sell beer and wine without a license and run the risk of fines and worse. Not being a Non Profit doesn’t mean you can, unless you’ve been around for 20 years and get a license. We’ve gone to BYOB but that could have issues and you’re not making any money or providing for all of your patrons. There has always been a grey area with this issue and I feel it should addressed.

I’m not advocating everyone getting a beer and wine license and appreciate the variety of drinking and non drinking events. But for the handful of spaces that do offer these types of shows, it would be appropriate to have it, and legally. I realize companies like the Exit and my own Combined Artform went through the work for getting a license and other could as well. Having done it I see how certain elements could be changed to adhere to public safety concern while making it feasible for those theaters to obtain a license and meet the needs for their audience.

I do feel people especially now want to go out and have an event for the evening, not just a play, they want more. They want a drink, hang with friends, hear a band, and maybe have some food. Having beer and wine are a big part of this. Going through the process of getting a license you hear how much apart these worlds are. My hope is to have it out, legal and responsibly controlled.

If we can present as a collective the needs of the shows, venues and address the city and alcohol board we can find a plan to allow beer and wine to be sold legally, making money for all and making the audience happy. Anything is better than having the cloud hang over our heads.

Currently in Los Angeles a group of theaters are working with the city to do just this. I would love to talk to TBA and whomever else as well about making this possible in San Francisco.

Sam Shaw said...

I agree that less snark will add to more dialogue. Enough of us having been doing theater long enough in the internet age that anything remotely resembling trollbait or an attempt to start a flamewar is a total turnoff. I might read it once, but i wont come back and sure as well wont contribute (excluding now of course).

That being said, the best theater experience I've had in this city was an hour long Titus Andronicus that the Thrillpeddlers did at the Exit. This was then the Exit had an actual working bar in the theater itself. It was rowdy, the audience was drunk and/or buzzed, it felt positively Elizabethan. The audience was utterly engaged and the atmosphere was thick with energy shared between the performer and audience. I'm not saying this couldn't have happened without lubricant, but I'm sure it helped. The contrast would be the PianoFight SHIT show at Sketchfest that I saw but was too fucked up to remember..

Small theaters need any income that they can get, and this under table/BYOB shit is getting tiresome. I agree with Matthew that any help that TBA can provide in reforming SF's horribly anti-art cabaret laws would be huge step in the right direction. If we want to attract young audiences, allowing beer/wine into at the theater is an absolute requirement.

Now excuse me while I leave for my liquid lunch.

Carl Benson said...



PianoFight: So Good When You're Drunk You Won't Even Remember It!