Twin Cities theater companies are taking a new look at their contingency plans, including how to deal with disruptive and obstreperous patrons, in the wake of an incident last Friday at the Guthrie Theater. At the start of the performance of "A Christmas Carol," an audience member launched into a rant that delayed the show for a half-hour.
The disruptor was removed by four members of the Minneapolis Police Department who didn't arrest her or seek to have her charged. "Carol," which takes place in the 1,100-seat Wurtele Thrust Stage, then proceeded apace.
"It was just awful," said patron Julie Moore, part of a four-member party that saw the new version of their favorite holiday show on its opening night. "What was really sad was that it went on so long and there were all these young kids there, dressed up for a night at the theater, with this person spewing very profane, racist things. The kids were crying. We were a captive audience, for sure."
In a statement to the Star Tribune, Guthrie managing director James Haskins said: "The Guthrie has long held procedures in place for disruptive patron behavior, which can range from inappropriate use of cellphones or recording devices to unruly behavior due to intoxication. These procedures are examined regularly. Historically, our practice has empowered the theater's security staff to de-escalate each situation on a case-by-case basis."
Though unsettling, such scenarios are rare in the Twin Cities.
"In our 53-year history, I can count on one hand the numbers of times we've had to ask someone to leave the theater," said Kris Howland, public relations director of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, the nation's largest company of its kind. She said there have been times where people have been rude to those around them or talked loudly during a performance, but those incidents have never stopped a show.
"But now that this happened, we have to come together and think about how to be better prepared," said Howland.
Kimberly Motes, managing director of the Children's Theatre Company, has worked in arts administration since 1989, both in Minnesota and in Washington, D.C.
"I've never seen or heard of anything like this," Motes said. "I'm scheduling a front of house and security meeting to tabletop exercise this, just to think through what we can and pressure-test our procedures as we look at ways to continue to improve our processes. We want to ensure that we have the safest, most positive experiences for our audience, staff and artists."
A part of the outburst last Friday night was captured on video posted on social media. Some commenters found humor in the situation, with one dubbing the incident "A Christmas Karen." But for veteran actor Sarah Agnew, an understudy for "Carol," the tension in the auditorium started to take a dangerous turn. So she stood up and addressed the audience, seeking to de-escalate the situation.
"It felt like there was a mob mentality that was starting to gather some momentum in the house while the Guthrie staff was dealing with this woman who was clearly having some sort of psychotic break," Agnew said. "I was aware of how many children were in the house and that, combined with what was coming out of this woman's mouth, I felt that someone needed to remind the audience that by clapping and calling back to her, that could only exacerbate the situation."
Questions have been raised about the Guthrie's protocols on social media, and whether their personnel were trained and equipped to physically remove a patron like that.
In late October, the Guthrie hired "a health, safety and security manager, who has begun to review all the Guthrie's safety and security practices, and will work in collaboration with the senior leadership team to carefully examine and evolve those practices moving forward," Haskins said.
Jerry Knock, who retired after 28 years as head of audience services at the State and Orpheum Theatres, said that while it's rare to hear of patrons being marched out or ejected from theater shows, it does happen more frequently at concerts.
"That's because there's sometimes a little more alcohol involved," Knock said, recalling an incident with an Eddie Izzard tour years ago. "We found that if you have someone in a police uniform come into the theater and ask someone to step out, they're more likely to do that. Much more so than they would for some 67-year-old floor manager in a suit."
Star Tribune reporter Paul Walsh contributed to this report.