Let Me Hear Your Opinion on This
I have a question to ask you, but before I do, I want to stroll down memory lane. Let’s return to February 6, 1988, when I attended the nuptials of one Tony Nunzio and Tina Vitale.
During the reception, Tina was upset at the lackadaisical way that the waiters were delivering the food. So I stepped up to the plates and said “Tina! Do you think we’re her for the prosciutto? Hardly! We’re here to share the most important day in your life. There could be bread and water on that table and we wouldn’t care.”
My reward was Tina’s saying thanks, patting me on the cheek and then kissing it.
Hey, if there’s audience participation, I’m going to participate.
When Uncle Louie wanted to fix me up with his niece Rose, I immediately agreed and sweet-talked the young miss during many a dance. I even asked for her phone number, and she responded by giving me a slip of paper on which she wrote “Rose: 555-5555.”
Undaunted, I promised I’d call.
And I did call, albeit not by telephone; I wound up attending TONY N’ TINA’S WEDDING 10 times in the few first months. Rose and I often discussed her career plans; she hoped she’d one day be able to move from selling fajita pans at Macy’s to high-end fashion at Bloomingdale’s. I encouraged her mightily with a speech that included “You got to have a dream. If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”
TONY N’ TINA opened the dam for me. Since then, whenever I’ve been put into a theatrical situation where I’m asked to improvise, I’ve played along. When a performer offers his hand for me to shake, I shake. When he asks “How’re you doin?” I say, “So far, so good. We’ll see what happens.”
This summer, however, my interaction with an actor met with less-than-great results.
Never mind what the production was. Never mind who the actor was. I have no interest in embarrassing anyone. Let’s leave it that the show took place in the Old West, and that I, sitting in a front row seat, suddenly had an actor, as they say, in my face.
Don’t misunderstand. He wasn’t doing anything wrong; he was just playing his part of a grizzled cowboy. His assignment in this role was to deliver a threatening-sounding rant and he chose the first-row patrons to be the brunt of it.
I was game. As he looked me straight in the eye, I met his gaze straight-on and stayed steely-eyed. As he continued with his snarky dialogue, I responded by mouthing (not saying, mind you, but mouthing) the famous two-word expression that will never be confused with “Merry Christmas.” In fact, I mouthed it twice.
As he continued “threatening” me – all in good fun, I took it – I suddenly closed four of my five fingers on my right hand, kept the middle one extended out, and then s-l-o-w-l-y lifted it in his direction – but at the last second used it to straighten my glasses. It’s a much more subtle way of, you should pardon the expression, “giving the finger,” don’t you think?
Eventually, the actor moved down the row and back to his place on stage as his role demanded. Later at the curtain call, I looked at him and smiled, fully expecting that he’d look right at me and smile back, showing that he enjoyed my improv. But he kept looking out at the house and didn’t acknowledge me.
A few days later, he sent me an e-mail that revealed he was not at all amused at what happened “as I was interacting with the audience,” he wrote. “Why did you feel the need to act that way? Why go to the theater if you aren’t there to enjoy yourself? I honestly don’t care who you are or what you do; your behavior was rude, absolutely inappropriate, and you need to be told. I’ve never experienced anything like this in all my years in the business. I hope you felt as if you made your point, whatever the hell that was.”
I immediately responded:
“I’m sorry you took it the way you did. The key words in your e-mail are ‘as I was interacting with the audience.’ And so, I was interacting back.
“You were playing a tough character. I was being tough back. I thought it was in the freewheeling spirit of the piece.
“You shouldn’t take it personally. I wasn’t dissing you the actor, but the character you were playing, who was confronting me.
“There IS a difference.
“When I attended TONY N’ TINA’s, I acted like a wedding guest. When I was at your show, I was being the character you were confronting. There was nothing more to it than that.”
The next day I wrote him again.
“You’ve given me fodder for an article. I’ve decided to devote a column to this. It’s a good subject: when an actor singles you out in an audience and talks directly to you, do you have the right to respond?
“Certainly it’s wrong for an audience member to START an interaction with an actor -- to yell something out of the blue. That would be terrible.
“But when an actor zeroes in on an audience member -- as you did with me -- isn’t he giving him the license or even permission to react?
“I think it does. You broke the fourth wall. Once I had an opening, I used it.
“In fact, I know many fine actors who have told me over the years that when they interact with audience members, they enjoy having the theatergoers respond back to them. They find it stimulating, challenging and a nice break from the usual eight-a-week script.
“On the other hand, I imagine there are many actors like you who find it disconcerting. It could throw them off their game.
“But in a courtroom when something is entered into evidence, it becomes admissible. Similarly, I say that if an actor deals with an audience member, he should be prepared for a response or consequences.
“He may not like the response he gets, but I say that he has to take what he gets because he started it.”
I’ve given the issue a good deal of thought since then. I’ll admit that there is a difference between TONY N’ TINA, which is ALL about audience participation, and a “regular” show where the convention just may be used for an isolated moment as a quick joke. But I still think I was within my rights to act as I did. And, believe me, if he’d approached me with open arms and said, “Hey, buddy! Long time, no see!” I would have stood, given him a hug and greeted him warmly.
I’m happy to report that the actor and I have since mended this broken fence. But I’m wondering if you see my point and agree with me. And if you agree with the actor, that’s fine, too. But I’m genuinely curious. Please e-mail me at email@example.com
I will tell you this. When I told my girlfriend of my mouthing that two-word expression and lifting a certain digit to my glasses, she shrieked “You did WHAT?!?!”
— Peter Filichia