Guardian Piece about Stage Rage
'If that goes off again I'll kill you'
Comedian Lee Hurst last week stormed out of a gig after an audience member used their phone. We asked other performers if they had ever succumbed to 'stage rage' ...
Tim Piggott-Smith, actor
There was an incident 10 years ago in The Iceman Cometh, one Saturday night at half past nine. I'd been on stage for hours. I was doing a scene with Kevin Spacey, and it was around that time I noticed that mobiles were becoming a real, consistent problem. A phone went off. I didn't know where I was, and I said, "If that goes off again I'll fucking kill you" - it was the shock of being dragged into the real world.
Kevin Spacey's way of handling it was much better. A phone once went off at the Old Vic, and he turned to the person in the audience and said, "Tell them we're busy."
Richard Herring, comedian
I was doing an Edinburgh show, the first time I'd done a show on my own, and as I got on stage a phone started ringing. I got through my first five jokes and the phone was still ringing. I had to stop and say, "Whose phone is that - can you turn it off?" I felt so flustered. The stage manager found it in the pocket of the person who was denying it. I threw it on to the stage to make a point and it fell into its constituent parts. There was a gasp, followed by a standing ovation. It wasn't an attempt to get angry. The minute you lose control as a performer, you're in dangerous waters.
When I was starting out, I had much less control over my temper. Once I was doing a story about Rasputin, set to the music of Boney M, and I came down off the stage offering to fight some bloke. We had lost the audience by then. That was in 1992.
On stage, your passions have risen and you're much more likely to do something extreme. As a comedian, you sometimes go down a dark alley, and make it worse before making it better. You have to make the response proportional. If you're too harsh, you lose the audience.
Certainly it's affected by what's going on in your life outside, whether you're tense about something else. I'm not a brave or aggressive person in real life, but being on stage gives you a feeling of invulnerability.
Philip Hensher, novelist
Everyone hates mobile phones going off, and I just stop dead in the middle of a sentence and stare at them until they stop. Once I was at a reading in Sydney, and someone put up her hand and asked how I could have given the Booker prize to Peter Carey for True History of the Kelly Gang (I was a judge in 2001), because no woman could like it. I had a total fit, because I hate the idea that a book is written exclusively for either a man or a woman. Everyone was looking nervously at me. No one asked any more questions; they all sat on their hands. I'm not usually a rage-filled person.
Louise Doughty, novelist
It was my first ever reading, in 1995, on a panel with Liz Jensen, Kate Atkinson and Nick Hornby. Most people were there to see Nick. I was reading just before him, and a woman rolled her eyes and mouthed, really obviously, "Oh, come on." To this day I regret the fact that I didn't crack. What I really wanted to say was, "Madam, would you like to come up here and have a go?" - but I was too timid. If anyone did that now, I would react pretty swiftly. Most novelists are shy and retiring people; when we get up and read, we're like badgers who have to come up from our burrows and do a tap dance.
Brendon Burns, comedian
People confuse us with happy-clappy clowns, but some comedians are big, tough guys. You're the alpha male in that situation, and invariably there will be some guy in the audience who has had too much to drink and feels threatened. It makes you wonder why they came.
I'm not a confrontational act, I'm just empathetic. I'll match the mood of the room and make it bigger. But sometimes I see red. When I get angry, I become lucid and eloquent. At one gig, I spent 20 minutes laying into the same guy. I was doing a routine about Scousers. You can make jokes about any town in England except Liverpool, which is ironic, because they think they've got a great sense of humour. Anyway, some horrible moon-faced Wayne Rooney lookalike took issue with me. He went to jump the barrier, and I told security to let him go. I didn't care, he was tiny.
Andrew Motion, poet laureate
Public readings are floating worlds - there's a strange disparity between what you're saying and how it's understood, because people come with their own preconceptions and prejudices. I've not experienced rage, but have felt puzzlement bordering on dismay and disappointment at discovering that several of the things I have said have been massively misunderstood. You must grow another layer of skin, or become accepting.
There's the common irritation of having to cope with mobile phones ringing, people arriving late or, worse, leaving early. For paranoid reasons, you think they're not having a good time, rather than having a coughing fit.
Benedict Cumberbatch, actor
Good on Lee Hurst. I think that's completely valid for a man performing on his own. But comedy is a bit different: you're not subscribing to that fiction of a divide between performer and audience. Personally, I think stopping a theatre performance to tell the audience off is a bit toe-curling, because audiences are self-regulating. At the press night of [Martin Crimp's] The City at the Royal Court this year, someone's phone went off for four minutes. There was a moment when [co-star] Hattie Morahan broke off, and I thought about stopping and saying, "OK everyone, we're only 20 minutes in, so we're going to ask that the phone be turned off and we're going to start again." I had this speech all ready, but I was repressing it and repressing it.
Another night, someone shouted out, "That was absolutely awful!" at the end of the play, in the darkness after the lights went down. What annoyed me was that the audience had been sitting in silence at the end of this very puzzling play, and then someone decided to hijack their entire thought process. Of course, that's the danger of doing something live, and it shouldn't be sanitised - but it is a balance.
Meat Loaf, singer
I was a little upset at an outdoor show at Castle Howard in Yorkshire this summer - not at the crowds but at the promoters, because the video screens weren't up and they were in the contract. I went to the production manager and said, "This is ridiculous." There were more than 10,000 people there.
When I took the stage I was pretty mad and swearing, but I used it in the performance. I'd seen Meryl Streep on Jonathan Ross talking about Kramer v Kramer. During filming, Dustin Hoffman turned around and slapped her in the face as hard as he could. She got really angry, but she used it. Similarly, my anger became part of the songs.
Scott Capurro, comedian
In Edinburgh this year, I had people walk on stage and chest-butt me - twice - but generally, I'm lucky. My accent and my height make people a little shy. Although I'm skinny and queer, I think the audience believes that because of my material, I'm capable of anything. And I'm American, so I might be armed. Have I ever behaved badly to an audience? Yes, but my abuse is always verbal. When an audience resists me, I get angry. I become accusatory and absolutely filthy, just so they can get a taste of what really distasteful material is like. Then they've got something to complain about.
Jim Jeffries, comedian
There are so many things an audience can do to get under your skin. There might be someone heckling very quietly in the front row, so you can hear it but the rest of the audience can't. Or you might see somebody filming the set, that little light on the phone following you around. It always seems a bit petty to ask them to stop.
Sometimes people throw things at the stage, even at good gigs. That's why all comedy clubs have plastic glasses. The British really aren't responsible enough to drink out of glasses; we're the only country that uses "glass" as a verb. One Christmas at Jongleurs I got hit by a turkey kebab.
Wendy Cope, poet
It was the early 1990s, not long after the publication of my second book, Serious Concerns, which does have more angry poems about men than any of my others. A lady came up to me at a reading and said, "Three of my friends left their husbands after they read your book." I said, "Gosh, I hope they made the right decision." I was alarmed. Mostly I find audiences warm and generous. But occasionally a man has been brought along who doesn't know what to expect, and thinks I'm very anti-man. It's annoying, but I don't get wound up by hostile questions. I try to respond in a humorous way.
Â· Interviews by Paul Arendt, Anita Sethi and Dave Simpson