Photo of Fire
Photo by Patrick Hendry

There’s the audience in the abstract, which is OK.

And then there are the audiences that come to your shows, which are terrifying—grumbling in their seats and running for the exit during intermission.

Like the man sitting behind us at Coastal Disturbances noticing that he and my husband were wearing identical jackets, and going into ecstasies over the coincidence during intermission, wondering when and where Norman had bought his, weeping with laughter, then finally trumpeting, “If only the play was this much fun!” Or the woman sitting next me during my translation of Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, bent over double during the entire performance, with her head between her legs. Or the child running up the aisle during one of my shows at the Children’s Theater Company in Minneapolis, vomiting all the way.

And then the terror during that preview of The Art of Dining at the Public Theater in 1979. The worst! THE worst!

In the late 1970’s, I struck by how New Yorkers were dining out with the same relish as going to the theater, so I got this brainstorm of setting a play in a restaurant, blurring the lines between appetite and performance. Half the stage would show the chef in the kitchen and the other half, the diners at their tables. Since I’d written about looking at art in Museum I wanted to show the artist at work, as well as her customers consuming it. A.J. Antoon directed, and Dianne Wiest and Kathy Bates were among the starry actors in the cast. 

The play ended with a tableau of the diners gathered around a stack of crêpes suzettes, recalling the communal meals of their cavemen forebears when they gave thanks for the kill and shared in the feast. It would be easy to pull off with poetic lighting, the women in fur coats, and several of them starting to eat with their fingers. But A.J. wanted it to look like a Hallmark Christmas card with Vivaldi playing in the background as snow fell outside the windows. So we argued back and forth, until we ended up in Joe Papp’s office where he finally sighed, “OK, OK, give the woman a bigger flame.” The cast and crew had already been walked through the flaming process by an expert from the Tavern of the Green so Joe’s suggestion didn’t seem that farfetched.

Fasten your seat belts...!

During a final preview, one of the stage hands ended up pouring raw alcohol from a spouted bottle into the already flaming crêpes. The minute it hit the flame, the bottle exploded and the metal tip flew into Bob Gerringer’s head. Blood flowed as a sheet of flame leapt across the stage and suddenly Dianne’s hair was on fire! Kathy Bates, instantly grabbed a fur coat and threw herself on top of her as the other actors ran for cover, singed and bleeding.

The audience was spellbound.

But then the cry went up, “Is there a doctor in the house?”

Within minutes the fire department, bomb squad, medics and TV cameras were pouring into the theater. I flew down to the green room where doctors were already tending to Dianne and the others. Since Peter Parnell’s The Sorrows of Stephen was opening upstairs, Joe was there as well, dressed in his three-piece white suit.  After the actors were examined and bandaged, we headed to the parked ambulances outside. As we filed into the lobby with Dianne in the lead—a medic supporting her on one side and Joe on the other—there was the audience!

They’d left their seats and had gathered in the lobby, waiting for us.

The moment they saw Dianne, they divided, creating a path and burst into applause, clapping louder and louder as we limped by.

It was so odd and strangely moving.

That they were there and out of their seats…in the lobby…applauding! What were we supposed to do? Bow?

I felt like sinking through the floor, feeling it was all my fault, but they just kept clapping. The audience I’d always feared was no longer judging us, but had become part of the show. They could have left the theater once the curtain came down, but they wanted to stay, offering their sympathy and concern.  I was moved to tears and may have even saluted them.

The audience…!

Who makes up this shape-shifting mass with the power to anoint or erase?

It’s just us of course, leaving our day-time labors to play that role for a few hours. It’s no wonder they make us so nervous. 

Tina Howe
Tina Howe

(born Mabel Davis Howe; November 21, 1937 – August 28, 2023) was an American playwright. In a career that spanned more than four decades, Howe's best-known works include Museum, Painting ChurchesThe Art of Dining, Costal Disturbancesand Pride’s Crossing, among others. Among her many accolades, she won the 1993 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature; 1998 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best American Play; 2015 PEN/Laura Pels Theater Award, Master American Dramatist; the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lillys; inducted into the 2017 American Theatre Hall of Fame; and 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Dramatists Guild.