It was opening night of “A Number,’’ Caryl Churchill’s dark, chilling drama about cloning gone awry, and Nael Nacer was giving it his all in a performance of nonstop intensity at Watertown’s New Repertory Theatre.
Suddenly a young woman near the back of the theater shrieked with laughter. As the play went on, she punctuated the performance earlier this month with loud bursts of merriment, often joined by more than a dozen other chortling spectators — apparently convinced, against all evidence, that they were watching a comedy.
Nacer was taken aback onstage. “I knew the only way out was to focus on [costar Dale Place], focus on the situation, focus on my character’s needs,’’ Nacer said.
“Rogue laughter,” as Boston-area actress Marianna Bassham calls it, has become an occupational hazard for actors, an annoyance for audiences, and an increasingly common phenomenon on stages from Boston to Broadway and from “A Streetcar Named Desire” to last year’s New York revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” starring Denzel Washington.
Ask a local actor or director whether he or she has ever been surprised by audience laughter, and the stories are likely to flow: During a bloody scene in Trinity Repertory Company’s recent “Julius Caesar,” there were pockets of laughter when a grimly resolute Portia, wife of Brutus, sliced her thigh with a dagger. In “A Future Perfect’’ at SpeakEasy Stage Company, some audience members laughed after one character revealed she had suffered a miscarriage. (Others in the audience gasped).
Some forms of disruptive audience behavior can be addressed before the show: Theatergoers are admonished to turn off their cellphones, warned against texting, and firmly enjoined to open their candy wrappers now, not in the middle of Hamlet’s soliloquy.
There is little to stop them, however, from guffawing at moments designed to bring a lump to their throats or a tear to their eyes. If you’re an actor, you just pray it doesn’t happen. “We’re creating this sort of magic bubble, and it’s easy to break,’’ said Bassham.
So why do some audience members laugh during decidedly noncomedic moments? One possible answer: There’s a big difference between the live, intimate, in-your-face experience of theater and the safely removed digital space where so many of our work and social interactions now play out.
“There’s a little bit of a breakdown in the audience’s appreciation that the live actor deserves a different kind of attention than social apps,’’ said actor-playwright Steven Barkhimer. Particularly at student matinees, he added, “I’ve wanted to stop certain shows and say: Excuse me, I’m not your TV screen.’’
MIT’s Sherry Turkle, a regular theatergoer and author of the just-published book “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,’’ contends that misplaced guffaws are born of the discomfort and anxiety that many people — especially millennials weaned on social media — feel when they are confronted with the raw emotion and human connection of a live experience.
“They bought a ticket, they think something is going to be presented to them, that they’re passive spectators, like with ‘Game of Thrones,’ ” said Turkle. “And all of a sudden something is happening onstage where they feel vulnerable. That’s where the laughter comes from. Laughing during a performance is a way of not being vulnerable.’’
Of course, it might also represent the opposite of vulnerability: an egocentric way to literally get in on the act. The rise of the selfie has encouraged us to consider ourselves the star of every occasion. YouTube has enabled spectators to fancy themselves as performers.
These days, it can also be harder to transfix viewers with somber subject matter, thanks to changes elsewhere on the entertainment landscape. “Television and other media have gone to such dark, gruesome places that the impact of a moment that is intended to have a great serious effect may not land as effectively, because it’s all around us,’’ said Paul Daigneault, the producing artistic director for SpeakEasy Stage Company.
Especially on opening night, audiences often include friends, family members, or students of actors who teach in Boston’s universities, and they may simply get the giggles while watching him or her perform. Some theatergoers might have had a drink or two before the show, and some doubtless yuck it up because they paid through the nose for their tickets and want to convince themselves they’re having a good time.
‘There’s a little bit of a breakdown in the audience’s appreciation that the live actor deserves a different kind of attention than social apps. I’ve wanted to stop certain shows and say: Excuse me, I’m not your TV screen.’Steven Barkhimer, actor-playwright
Finally, if some audience members are uncertain about how to react, it may be because theatrical boundaries have become blurrier, with many of today’s most acclaimed plays traveling from funny to serious and back again, including comic dramas like Annie Baker’s “The Flick,’’ Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews,’’ and Bruce Norris’s “Clybourne Park.’’
“There’s a really gray area, especially now,’’ said Barkhimer, whose recent play “Windowmen’’ fits into the category of comic drama. “It’s not so much confusion as porousness.’’ Daigneault points out: “The definition of a drama in contemporary theater is a lot different from drama in the world of Arthur Miller.’’
That still doesn’t explain laughter during wrenching moments in straight-up dramas. Could it actually be considered a tin-eared tribute to the power of theater to get under your skin?
“In theater, you are bombarded with human nature at its most intense,’’ said Joe Wilson Jr., an actor with Trinity Repertory Company in Providence. “We go to places that no other art form can go, and I think that makes people uncomfortable sometimes.’’ Noting that inappropriate laughter “happens quite frequently,’’ Wilson said that sometimes it’s the laughter of recognition, as in: “I recognize myself, I recognize that situation, I’ve lived that situation.’’
Whatever the cause, misguided laughter complicates the relationship between actor and audience, which is exceedingly delicate under the best of circumstances, dependent on mysterious elements of chemistry and an atmosphere of mutual good will. Indeed, many actors view audiences as crucial partners in the storytelling endeavor that is live performance.
“You don’t want to control people’s response,’’ said Bassham. “You want people to have a response.’’ And actors say there are occasions when unexpected laughter prompts a necessary recalibration of their performance. “Sometimes an audience is enlightening that way,’’ said Barkhimer.
But Bassham was startled recently while portraying Blanche DuBois in the Gamm Theatre’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.’’ As the actress delivered one of Blanche’s most harrowing speeches, about the parade of deaths in the DuBois family, including a relative whose disease left her so bloated her body had to be “burned like rubbish,’’ a spectator, seated just a few feet away from Bassham in the tiny Gamm space, exploded with laughter.
“You go backstage and you go, ‘What was that?’ ” recalled Bassham.
After the laughter-marred opening night of “A Number’’ at New Rep, Nacer said, he and his costar conferred backstage, asking each other: “Is there something that’s not playing right? What does it mean?’’ They concluded they did not need to adjust their performances — a decision soon ratified by patrons at a post-show party who apologized for the chortling audience members.
Looking back, the actor can even discern a silver lining in that baffling laughter. “It forced us to be really present,’’ said Nacer. “It tightened our focus. We were far too invested to let some people in the audience be a distraction.’’Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.