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I Admit It! Sometimes I Fall Asleep at the Theatre

Date: Aug 29, 2019


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Not everything can keep me awake, and that's okay


I didn't see a lot of theatre growing up, but every winter my parents took me and my sister to a concert by the Boston Pops. The evening was an occasion: I had to wear a dress, and it always seemed like an exciting event until we actually sat down to listen. The music, which was classical, sounded nice but, without fail, I would fall asleep. "Lizey slept through it again!" my mom would proclaim. Yet waking up to the crease of my father's blazer imprinted upon my cheek and my family's jokes about my snoozing I was never quite ashamed. I felt, if not exactly celebrated, at least seen. It was an honest response to the experience.

As I grew into my theatre self I began to notice with some alarm that Shakespeare almost always had a soporific effect on me. Reading his text made my eyelids heavy as did watching his plays. As a budding thespian, it was painful to realize that I didn't love the Bard in the way that I thought I was supposed to. For years I pretended to adore whatever Shakespeare plays I saw, despite my catnaps late in Act II and eyelid dances in Act III. What could it portend for my future as an artiste that I fell asleep when reading and viewing his works except when celebrities were involved?! (As a teen of the '90s, I lived for the Romeo + Juliet movie starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio).

It wasn't until I moved to New York that I learned not all theatre people love Shakespeare, though I still sometimes hesitate to reveal this aspect of my taste. I have come to accept the haze of boredom that inevitably washes over me when viewing the Bard. And, I should add, I have seen many terrific Shakespeare productions and actually enjoyed some of them. The Mark Rylance Twelfth Night on Broadway and New York Theatre Workshop's Othello with David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig had me at maximum Shakespeare rapt -- I only had light eye rest for about 11% of the time.

If you really want to hit the snooze button for me, just perform Shakespeare in another language besides English. The mellifluous sounds of a tongue unknown to me work like an aural tranquilizer -- off I nod. I recall an Italian All's Well that Ends Well that ended for me right after it began.

For a long time I kept my theatre naps under wraps due to a bit of embarrassment. But I have come to accept and, on occasion, even welcome my snoozing, especially when it comes to opera. A dreamlike atmosphere, especially when sung in a language I don't understand, is a recipe for drowsiness. But my shuteye is almost always interrupted by a sudden plot twist and a shift in music. A character professes love or a violent death ensues, and an aria takes flight. I'll never forget the moment when Butterfly kills herself with her father's seppuku knife in Madama Butterfly. What a thrill to be in a state of semi-slumber only to rouse and see and hear that happen! I have come to think that opera, like baseball, is best enjoyed while napping and waking up for the exciting bits.

Sometimes an audience is expected to sleep a little, particularly in endurance theatre, aka performances that last more than three or four hours. When I had my first Noh experience I was comforted to see -- and hear -- fellow audience members enjoying a rest.

Occasionally I sleep in protest while watching a supposedly legendary piece of theatre that doesn't measure up for me. I recall seeing a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and feeling so frustrated by the incessant yelling and obvious plot reveals that I chose to nap.

Ironically the only time I was invited to slumber in the theatre -- for Jim Findlay's Dream of the Red Chamber, a performance for a sleeping audience -- I couldn't achieve any zzzs. Snuggled with my beloved on a bed, I was relaxed yet far too intent on watching our fellow theatregoers. I wanted to see how others slept -- who was spooning who? I also couldn't shake the nagging worry of bedbugs.

Considering my penchant for slumbering in my seat, it makes sense that I have empathy for my fellow theatre nappers, even when they're snoozing through a performance of my own. Years ago, I worked as a summer tour guide at the Old North Church in Boston where I would give a brief, five-minute history talk. It amazed me how some tourists got right to work, by which I mean sleep. Reasons were manifold: the heat and humidity, too much sun, finally sitting down after lots of walking, aversion to lessons. As I spoke about Paul Revere, I would gaze upon the dozers and consider how they might wake up to one of my own dramatic plot twists or corny jokes. It always felt like a huge success when they would rouse, alarmed, to the sounds of others laughing around them. And while it's never fun to see an audience member snoring during a play I've written, I have come to accept it best I can. Naps happen, it's a fact of theatre life.

Have you ever fallen asleep at the theatre? Tell us about it in the comments.


Eliza Bent is a playwright, performer, and sometime pundit. Follow her on Instagram at @getbentobox. Follow TDF on Instagram at @officialtdf.

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