My Theatre

13 June 2019

The Empathetic Importance of Allowed “Second Act-ing”

By // Theatre

One of the most impactful experiences I’ve ever had in a theatre came at, of all things, the recent Broadway run of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical. I was in New York for a few days for a friend’s wedding and, unable to afford a ticket to literally anything on the Great White Way, I entered every single lottery on offer hoping to score a semi-affordable seat to see anything at all. That’s how I ended up at SpongeBob, a middling overly commercial musical that meant absolutely nothing to me. As a non-New Yorker theatre lover, it was okay with me that what I ended up seeing wasn’t my first choice; I just wanted to go to Broadway, to be a part of it.

But my experience of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical is not the point of this story. The point of this story is the empty seat next to me. I was way off to the side in a partial view seat. No one appeared to have the ticket next to me, which seemed like a good thing since the view from that chair was even more partial. At intermission, an eccentric young man in dishevelled SpongeBob-branded clothing came bounding down the aisle and asked if anyone was occupying the truly undesirable seat next to me. I told him it had been empty so far and he sat down. This kid- maybe 21 at most, an odd duck with some clear behavioural challenges- really got on my nerves at first. I’m a bit of a stick in the mud, especially when I’m on familiar ground like in a theatre, and his flagrant disregard for the basic rules of theatre bugged me. He was bouncing in his seat, singing along, even muttering key lines of dialogue and repeating “here it comes, here it comes” before his favourite numbers. Those were rules that mattered to me, they interfered with my enjoyment of the show. He was breaking another rule too, but we’ll get to that.

After about ten minutes of silently seething about the gall of this kid who was neither dressed for nor behaving correctly at the theatre, I set my prissy anger aside and started looking at the show through his eyes. SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical was the love of his life. He was living for the partial view second act he had the privilege to witness and you could tell the high of getting to see the show he loved so much would carry him through whatever challenges were facing him on the other side of those theatre doors. It’s hard to tell exactly what the situation was. He may have been there to see the second act because he had already seen the full show and just needed a hit of pure joy that day whether the experience was complete or not. Or maybe he had downloaded and memorized the soundtrack but could never afford a ticket so sneaking in at intermission to catch the ending was the closest he could come to experiencing the real thing for himself. Either way, I’m pretty indifferent to the fact that I saw SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical on Broadway but, in the end, I’m so incredibly happy that he got to see it. Or at least he got to see the second half.

What that kid was doing was a time honoured theatre tradition called “Second Act-ing”, a concept that’s been around as long as theatres have (Click Here for some essential reading) but only really gained mainstream recognition when Jim did it on The Office. But Jim isn’t indicative at all of the type of person who second acts in real life. You have to know when intermission is, and the layout of the theatre, and the practice works best if you’ve already seen the show or the piece is non-narrative enough that missing the beginning won’t leave you lost. It’s an enthusiast’s move, an old trick of starving artists and theatre students, the sort of people who are willing to take a risk and break a rule for the sake of seeing the art. And, and this is a very important point, it only works if the show isn’t sold out.

Basically the idea is that you just follow the smokers back into the theatre after intermission and occupy whatever empty seat you can find. You’re not taking anyone’s ticket. You’re not avoiding paying for something you would have otherwise paid for (no one second acts unless the choice is second act-ing or staying home). And in cases other than my SpongeBob experience, you’re not bugging anybody. But you get to be there and see it, even if you’re not seeing all of it.

All of this lead-up is preamble to the out-of-character revelation that I got kicked out of Roy Thomson Hall tonight. Well, not really kicked out; I felt like I wasn’t pulling it off so I walked out of my own accord hoping to reduce any potential blowback on my parents who were attending the evening’s performance with legitimate tickets in hand. It didn’t work. Apparently they were scolded by the manager just for associating with me, a detail that absolutely blows my mind in the abstract but, having experienced the Roy Thomson second act-ing security thrill ride first hand, it’s not that much of a surprise that lecturing a pair of mild mannered 60-somethings seemed like the logical next step for this particular band of go-getters.

I mean that as a compliment. The ushers, managers, and someone I’m assuming was some sort of “security manager” working Roy Thomson Hall during the final performance of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s “Modern Broadway” program are pretty badass. First some girl chased me through the lobby and up an escalator, then there was a few minutes of people buzzing about and looking over suspiciously at the place where I’d met up with my (totally innocent) parents near the section where they were sitting surrounded by a reported fair number of empty seats. Walkie talkies came into play. When I finally decided that this wasn’t worth it and headed calmly towards the door, the aforementioned security lady stopped me as I crossed the threshold and told me that next time I need to “respect her venue”.

I can’t imagine a world in which I cared enough about my likely slightly-over-minimum-wage job to refer to the building as “my venue” but kudos to her, she’s following the rules really hardcore. Even if I think those rules are deeply misguided and it’s an awful shame when underpaid employees of a large, well-funded corporation toe the line at the expense of their peers, I get that she probably has an intense boss and she needs that job. So do the other people with the walkie talkies. Which is why when I return to the venue next week with the incontestable press tickets I already have booked, I’m honestly going to try to summon my self control and not smirk or even smile in her direction with the “big mistake” energy I so pettily want to bring.

Because I do know I’m being petty. I do, I promise. I broke a rule and the people whose job it is to enforce the rules wouldn’t let me get away with breaking said rule. All’s fair in love and venue security, I guess. I naively thought it wouldn’t be a big deal, that’s my bad. I know my way around Toronto’s arts venues and can think of very few places where anyone has ever checked anyone’s ticket on their way back in from intermission, let alone chased someone up an escalator. Most ironically, it would have been the least big deal at the sort of small venue where the people enforcing the rules are the theatre owners themselves, the people who really need you to buy a ticket because your $25 (because that’s what venues like that charge) will literally help them pay rent or not lose their venue to the bank. But I also have a little clout and a certain amount of recognizability at most other venues in town; if the front of house manager doesn’t know me by reputation, an actor I’m friendly with is most likely ushering. My naiveté (or, perhaps more accurately, optimism) was a product of hyper-specific privilege and I own that. But what really bit me in the butt is my bullish belief that no one is going to enforce a rule that is illogical to enforce. They always enforce the illogical rules, Kelly! Learn why don’t ya?!

But it just feels to me like such a strange use of energy. And it was a lot of energy. This was like a 5-man operation involving multiple floors of an extremely large building. Again, There Were Walkie Talkies Involved! These folks followed up and followed through like the stakes were much higher than the issue of having an extra body sitting in an otherwise empty seat applauding politely when the orchestra nailed the Les Mis medley. Yes, it’s unfair to the patrons who paid full price. And, yes, it’s against the rules and we are all supposed to follow the rules or society breaks down or something like that. But second act-ing should be the jaywalking of theatre security (actually, that’s unfair to jaywalking, which is legitimately dangerous and creates unnecessary stress for drivers). Second act-ing hurts literally no one, not even the theatre owners, and I’ll eat my hat if you can find one performer who will say they’d honestly rather have that seat empty. This is not an issue of precedent-setting. Second act-ing is, as previously explained, complicated and really truly not for casuals; letting it slide is not going to open the doors to rampant fare evasion. And it’s not about “respecting the venue”, a phrase that honestly sticks in my craw more than anything else from this whole hullabaloo. Roy Thomson Hall is not sacred. The venue is the venue, it’s bricks and mortar and decent acoustics. The art is the thing and call me overly romantic but it seems to me that anyone willing to risk being chased with walkie talkies in order to hear a little music has more respect for what actually goes down in Roy Thomson Hall than the person arbitrarily blocking the door.

That’s what it is, it’s blocking the door. When I left Roy Thomson Hall, I crossed the street to the TIFF Lightbox (because I did have a backup plan in case I couldn’t get in to see the end of the concert). I watched an incredibly well-reviewed little art film. I can’t say that I totally understood it, because I haven’t had as much exposure to that style of filmmaking as I’d like. Any complex art form is an acquired taste, a learned language, and the only way to get there is exposure. I’m working on it with art film. Ballet and Shakespeare I picked up years ago. And, it was a struggle, but I’m proud to say I’ve gotten there with opera. But the way I got there was by being allowed in the door. Over and over and over again, even though I wasn’t always dressed right and I didn’t know anything about the medium and I couldn’t afford a ticket, I was allowed in the door until I reached a point where I appreciated the art form enough that, when I have the money, I may choose to spend it on seeing an opera. Or maybe even donating to the opera one day.

This website is the reason I was allowed in that door. And it’s the reason why I was allowed in the door of Roy Thomson Hall on Monday evening when I saw and reviewed the show in question. It’s the reason that, unless they ban me (because my anxiety-prone brain is already chronicling the ways in which tonight’s out-of-character misadventure could have unrealistic longterm consequences beyond my mother being mad at me), the intense security lady will let me in the door next week. But not everybody has some nifty little platform that gives them access to things they couldn’t otherwise afford (and a forum to write too many words complaining about not being allowed to do something they’re not supposed to be allowed to do).

Reducing the prices and creating youth-access programs isn’t enough (though both are very necessary and the TSO admittedly has a pretty good youth access program). If someone cares enough to research when intermission is and scope out whether there are seats available and risk being stalked and scolded and escorted from the building- those are the people you want to let in! Those are the people who have to be there. When I was 13 years old, I was lucky enough to get a ticket to see Itzhak Perlman perform. I was a violin kid and Itzhak was the top of that mountain so my mom and I got all dressed up and traipsed down to Roy Thomson Hall for the occasion. There was a young man outside the venue, as there often is, playing the violin. He was incredibly good and the sign in his case, instead of asking for money, simply read “extra ticket?”. My mom had bought my ticket for me and I knew how lucky I felt to be getting to see my idol perform live. So, with what little money I had in my 13-year-old checking account, I bought the guy a ticket. I remember being overwhelmed with the feeling that he had to be there. Of every single person in that theatre, the person who most had to be there was the person who couldn’t afford to be so he was willing to look a little silly and ask for a little empathy in order to get in the door. If that night had turned out differently, that’s the sort of person who might have tried second act-ing. It’s outrageous to me to think that the usher at the door would do anything other than just let him in.

Even though I understand why they didn’t, I think they should have just ignored me tonight and carried on the actual work of running and securing the venue- making sure no one is over served and disruptive to the performance, tending to the ageing subscribers and their myriad of health and accessibility concerns. Me and my obstructed attempt to see the second half of “Modern Broadway” are not the point of this article, merely the annoyed catalyst. I got greedy; I’d seen (and raved about) the performance two days earlier and, having convinced my parents to see the show, I just wanted to spend an hour with my mom and get to see her face when she heard Jeremy Jordan sing “Why God, Why”. I’d had a rough day and, though I couldn’t justify the ticket price to see the full show again, I remembered the feeling I’d had on Monday when my favourite singer performed his two big solos after intermission and I decided to gamble on the chance that I might be able to experience that one more time before he left town. I’m not a very brave person and, though I talk a big game in print, I’m a relentless rule follower. I don’t want either of those things to be true so I tried something out-of-character that logically, anecdotally, empathetically should have worked and it didn’t.

But, again, I’m not the point. My point is that kid at SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical and the usher who let him in. I imagine it was an actor, some out-of-work or just-out-of-school young person who had second act-ed once or twice in their time. They saw this kid walk up at intermission with his SpongeBob gear and his hopeful look and they chose for a second to do their job badly out of pure generosity. At the expense of no one, they let in someone who desperately wanted to be there. Talk about respecting the venue.

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