Theater Ethics: The Big Daddy Affair

"Yes, why DON'T you want to make love to a young Liz Taylor, Brick? I've been wondering about that myself..."

“Yes, why DON’T you want to make love to a young Liz Taylor, Brick? I’ve been wondering about that myself…”

It is convenient when the perspectives of my longtime dual personas as a stage director and an ethicist are simultaneously relevant, so I couldn’t pass up this juicy story.

From the LGBT blog of the LA Weekly:

A Southern California production of the Tennessee Williams classic “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof” was canceled today after a homophobic outburst in the audience led to a physical confrontation, the firing of an actor, and an apparent cast revolt….the Repertory East Playhouse… announced in a statement today that the run of the play was “suspended” …as a result of “cast members leaving the show with no time to adequately re-cast their parts … “[A] man in the audience was allegedly drunk and heckling the performers during Saturday night’s performance….The heckling had been building up, …with whistling and cat-calling aimed at the character Maggie, as if the heckler and his friend “were at a strip club.”….at the moment Brick is asked why he rejected a kiss from Maggie….the heckler called out something like, “Because he’s a fag,” according to the director. At that point the actor playing Big Daddy, John Lacy, went into the audience to confront the man…”

“It was almost like he [Big Daddy] was still in character,” another actor told the LA Weekly blogger, Dennis Romero. He and a third actor then left the stage, and helped subdue the drunken audience member and his friend. Apparently the audience applauded the scene—does this remind anyone else of “My Favorite Year”?—and the play continued. Said a cast member: “The rest of the play has more resonance than ever.”

The theater fired Lacy after the show.  Anton Troy, the actor playing Brick who had been heckled, then announced on Facebook that he was quitting the production in protest, saying in part, “I will not support homophobia or an establishment that doesn’t support its talent. Hate in any form is not something I choose to subscribe to. John is a seasoned professional and an honorable man. It should never escalate to a point where the talent has to handle an unruly drunk in the audience themselves regardless of the outcome. Producers dropped the ball..”

Other actors quit the production as well, and the entire run, which was to have included a tour, was cancelled.


Here are some ethics observations:

  • There is no defense for the drunken heckler. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is not an audience interactive show, and such behavior is disrespectful to the actors, the play, the author, the audience…everyone, really.
  • Nor is there any excuse for the theater staff failing to deal with the disruption in a timely and professional manner before it came to this point. In its announcement cancelling the show, the theater said in part…

“During that evening’s performance, an unruly patron allegedly made discriminatory comments that distracted audience members and a confrontation occurred between a member of the cast and the disturbing party. The management of the REP regrets that this situation was not brought to their attention sooner and would like to assure future audiences that disruptive behavior, including disparaging remarks from the audience, incidents of  bullying or hate speech, and racial, discriminatory or homophobic utterances, will not be tolerated and offending parties will be asked to leave the theater”

What do they mean, “regrets that this situation was not brought to their attention sooner”? It was taking place inside their own theater, during a performance of their production, in front of audience members who paid money to them. It was “brought to their attention,” because the theater and its staff are obligated to pay attention.

  • Spare us the political correctness lip service and grandstanding: what the heckler said has nothing to do with whether he should have been ejected. I don’t care if he was reciting the 23rd Psalm. Whoever wrote the theater’s statement is an idiot. The correct and responsible message is that any audience member, saying anything, disrupts a live performance and will be told to shut up or get out. It doesn’t matter whether the comments are homophobic, disparaging or the Gettysburg Address. The audience isn’t supposed to say anything.
  • But while we are on the topic of the remark itself,  “Because he’s a fag,” is not necessarily a homophobic remark in this context, nor was it denigrating the actor. If anything, in addition to its disruptive character, which is enough, the comment gives away the plot of the play, for that is the reason why Brick won’t kiss Maggie. The comment used a gay slur, but it was not a slur on the actor., and it was the slur that would have been used at the time to denigrate Brick and “Skipper.”  This it was a slur on the actor’s character. It also accurately conveyed the likely sentiments of the character’s father, “Big Daddy,” who might have used exactly those words, and who was played by the actor who confronted the creep. Indeed, “Because he’s a fag,” is a line Tennessee Williams might have written himself, and I bet he did, in one of his other plays. It is more than a little strange to have an actor swoon over an audience member making a comment that is reflective of the play’s subtext. Would “Big Daddy” have come off the stage to whup the guy if he had said instead, “Because he’s gay!” It doesn’t sound like it. And that’s just dumb….disrupting a performance because of a politically incorrect word choice.
  • I’m not crazy about an actor taking it upon himself to stop a performance to confront an audience member. When a performer in a one-actor show does it, that’s a little easier to defend: he or she is the only cast member affected. It also depends on the situation. In 2010, actor Liev Schieber jumped off the stage to give CPR to an audience member who appeared to be in cardiac arrest. That’s admirable and responsible; “the show must go on” doesn’t require an actor to keep acting while someone’s dying. But if an actor stopped the show every time a cell phone went off, a rude audience member wouldn’t quiet a crying baby, or somebody called out to the stage, hardly any live show would make it to curtain.
  • If, however, the performers feel threatened, or the show is being sufficiently disrupted that the performance cannot be dramatically effective, stopping the show is a courageous and responsible course. Since this theater apparently was asleep at the switch, I think Lacy probably did the right thing, and this part of Troy’s statement—It should never escalate to a point where the talent has to handle an unruly drunk in the audience themselves regardless of the outcome. Producers dropped the ball..”—is 100% correct. The “hate speech” part is gratuitous and irrelevant.
  • I should add that audiences love this kind of thing, when the actors go off script. It also demonstrates what is special and exciting about live theater.
  • Unless there were other problems with Lacy, firing him for this one incident was excessive. A theater has good reason to discourage actors from fighting with paying customers—theater doesn’t have enough of them as it is. This incident, however, was the theater’s fault.
  • Since the theater was wrong, and Lacy was not treated fairly, the mass walk-out by other actors is ethically defensible. Unfortunately, LA being LA and everything being about playing the victim card these days, it is being characterized as a demonstration against hate and homophobia. If that was the real reason for the walk-out, then it is unethical, and stupid as well. Actors want to dictate the content of heckling now? The purpose of theater, among others, is to enlighten audiences, not punch out the unenlightened. Shut up and act. That was almost certainly not the case, however; just the way the political correctness police and the guardians of LGBT influence want it spun for public consumption. Oh all right.

With all this acknowledged, the theater, the actors, and the boorish heckler have managed to rob area audiences of a production of one of the great works of American drama. Good work guys.


Sources: CBS, LA Weekly



8 thoughts on “Theater Ethics: The Big Daddy Affair

  1. You would think, well, OK, I would think, that the caliber of conduct of your average play goer would be slightly higher than that of your average citizen.
    I guess not.

      • The problem is not playgoers, but rather fake playgoers, those who have been cajoled by friends in the cast, or culture loving dates, or the lure of free tickets. I don’t even try to get non theater-literate friends to my shows any more. I got sick of them arriving late, or not paying attention, or finding excuses to leave early so they wouldn’t miss CSI. The average substantive play is too long for most of them, or they have no interest unless its a musical, or has a star they remember from a TV show. It’s hopeless, frankly. The average serious playgoer is about 60. And they ain’t getting younger.

  2. The theater’s response reminds me of an incident in grad school.

    A PhD student who was shadowing the professor (as all of us had to do at a certain point in the program) came unglued and harangued one of the class members who had just done a presentation on something to do with race and gender considerations in public school teaching.

    The presentation was put together well and presented well, and its topic and conclusion were pretty standard fare for a composition & rhetoric course where race and gender were the professor’s pet themes. But our observer, who apparently considered herself the arbiter of everyone else’s opinions because she was a Latina from East L.A., castigated my classmate for being too white to have an opinion and harangued the lot of us for a good 20 minutes on how her experience as a person of color invalidated every idea we had or ever would have. The whole class was aghast. The professor — a nationally esteemed “rock star” rhetorician, by the way — just sat there as if this was a perfectly normal occurrence. When the interruptor finished her tirade, he thanked her for the thought-provoking “discussion” she had facilitated.

    The next day, guess what we got? A 20-minute oration from our noble professor on how it was our responsibility to never let anyone derail our educational experience, and how, as students, we were empowered to control any rhetorical engagement that might arise in the classroom.

    Silly me, I thought controlling rhetorical engagement in the classroom was the teacher’s job. But apparently the whole incident was my fault. Got it.

    Just like this whole theater incident was apparently the fault of the audience for not making management its own damn job. Got it.

    That blame-shifting prof left the university a while ago…maybe he went into theater.

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