I recently asked the cast of "War Horse" to name their most memorable moment from the past year. Stephen James Anthony, who plays Billy Narracott, replied: "Our first all-student matinee." He said the kids, from New York City public schools, were "so vocal, so honest, and their reaction to the play's climax was astounding. I'll never forget it."
"War Horse" is having another student matinee this week, and I'm practically suicidal that I won't be able to attend it. Like Anthony, I enjoy the aliveness of the students. I am surprised that this is so. When it comes to audiences, I tend toward the curmudgeonly. As soon as the woman in front of me rattles her jewelry, providing unwanted percussion; or the man next to me sneaks one-too-many looks at his iPhone, violating the rule that Off Means Off; or the guy behind me gives indications that he's going to be narrating the play for his companion, as if his voice is more commanding than that of James Earl Jones; or the woman on the aisle starts to snore loudly, making me want to buy her an espresso shot at intermission: as soon as I detect any of these things, I say something.
With a student audience, however, I relax. I become indulgent, the way that parents on an airplane do for their own children but not for others (much to the chagrin of their neighbors). I go from Old Guard to Advance Guard in an instant. I suspect that my change in behavior owes something to the fact that I had seen "War Horse" several times before that first student matinee, and was not concerned about missing a line of dialogue if someone had laughed too loud at something just said. If I were a regular patron who had stumbled into a student matinee, maybe I would have felt differently.
But I doubt it. It's misguided to assume that an audience brimming with adolescent energy means that theatergoers will necessarily flinch at the experience. It's also a mistake to think that high spirits signal that the teenagers aren't paying attention. In my experience, they tend to be more attentive, more attuned to a joke or an absurdity. (And hyper-sensitive to the merest suggestion of sex.)
Like me, most actors also appreciate being shaken up. They say that young audiences give them information about how to land a line or how to create a visual effect that may not have occurred to them before. When I go backstage at a student-matinee intermission I sense an energy in the actors that is unusual: they aren't jumping right on their iPhones to check texts or their laptops to log on to Facebook. Instead, they tend to be talking to each other, chuckling, say, at something they heard a girl in the front row mutter to her friend during a pause in dialogue.
I hasten to admit that not all actors appreciate equally the jolt that a student audience imparts. I have seen a few souls look a little shell-shocked at these intermissions - and not from the explosions on "War Horse"'s imaginary battlefields. And there are actors in more comic bits who do not appreciate having their hard-won timing upended. But these people tend to be in the minority. More representative is the actor who, looking ahead to this week's performance, told me: "A student matinee makes 'Game of Thrones' look like a tea party. I can't wait!"
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.