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Durham University

Department of English Studies

Event Archive

This is an archive of past events within the Department of English Studies. Please see our current events for forthcoming activities.

Some of our public events are recorded and are available as podcasts via our Research English At Durham blog.

Tics in the Theatre: The 'Quiet Audience' and the Neurodivergent Spectator

6th September 2017, 17:30 to 19:00, Alington House, 4 North Bailey, Hannah Simpson

A free public lecture that reflects on how the etiquette of watching theatre in silence may create barriers for some audiences. Part of our Late Summer Lectures Series.

About this talk

It’s not unusual to hear people complaining about modern theatre audience etiquette. Benedict Cumberbatch made headlines in 2015 when he asked that fans to stop using their mobile phones at the Barbican Centre, Richard Griffiths has ejected spectators from the National Theatre, and the Theatre Charter, supported by no less than Stephen Fry, encourages audiences to police each other in bad spectator habits such as fidgeting, talking, and leaving the auditorium during the performance. So keen is our sense of the need for respectful silence that the modern spectator quickly forgets that the concept of the ‘quiet’ audience is a very new and very historically atypical one.

The modern spectator might also forget how the cult of the ‘quiet audience’ challenges the neurodivergent spectator, who cannot guarantee that her body will remain passively quiet during a performance. If the rustle of sweet papers or whispered comments are thought so disruptive, then what of the still more pronounced noises and movements of the neurodivergent spectator: the verbal tic or motor convulsion of the individual with Tourette’s syndrome, the self-comforting rocking of the child with autism, or the rushed exit of the individual in the grip of a PTSD flashback? In short, how does our new modern focus on audience etiquette challenge neurodiverse individuals from accessing the theatre? And how would re-establishing a ‘relaxed audience’ affect the potential of the theatre auditorium as a public sphere?

This lecture – which welcomes a noisy audience! – charts the change in accepted spectator behaviour, using written, drawn and filmed archival sources to explain the establishment of the modern ‘quiet audience’. It calls for a change in our modern theatre etiquette, with a particular focus on Relaxed Performance. It ends by theorising how changing our expectations of audience behaviour once again could re-stimulate a new phenomenological experience of the theatre, with striking affective and political consequences.

About Hannah Simpson

Hannah Simpson is a PhD student in English Literature at St. Cross College, University of Oxford. Her dissertation explores physical pain and disability in post-WWII theatre and choreography, focusing on the work of Samuel Beckett and Tatsumi Hijikata. A strong interest in disability theory, gender theory and dismodernism informs her research. She has presented and chaired at numerous national and international conferences, and has articles published in Comparative Drama and Warwick Exchanges and forthcoming in Etudes Irlandaises and the Journal of Modern Literature.

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