Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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Over the past couple of months there has been a significant discussion in theater circles about the concept of basic theatrical etiquette. By this I do not mean how performers and/or crew behave backstage, but rather, the increasingly boorish actions of some audience members. The general question appears to have two foci: whether or not some audience members have forgotten how to appreciate a live performance in a group setting, and how addicted people in the US have become to electronics.
And here comes the moment when I begin to sound like a curmudgeon, which I really am not. However, my observations over time have made the most recent events in New York seem recognizable (regrettable, but recognizable), particularly when I see echoes of the behavior here, closer to home.
To begin, the problem of inattention or distraction due to electronics is not new. I can remember, a good 25 years ago and more, being startled to see parents take their tween children to shows, only to allow them to listen to their headphones the entire time. I kept wondering what made that experience any better than leaving a kid with a babysitter? And that was before the onset of our most addictive convenience, the cell phone.
Cell phones have become an increasing annoyance for actors and audience members alike. I can remember several searing moments of theatrical drama which were interrupted by a loud electronic cha-cha, deep in someone’s purse. And you know how that one goes: first the quieter but annoying music, then the dive-and-dig by the phone’s owner, leading to the much louder musical interlude before the phone can finally be silenced. Best of all is the person who just denies the call, and thus must face that exercise all over again about ten minutes later when the person at the other end calls back.
But now many of us Americans see phones as our appendages – something which must be on, or even out, all the time. YouTube is full of union-violating cell phone footage of, say, Idina Menzel’s last night as Elphaba in “Wicked,” or someone or other’s stellar curtain speech, even though the program specifically states (and sometimes so does an announcer at show’s start) that the taking of photographs and videoing is strictly prohibited. And, of course, even if not recording the performances onstage, texting with its ensuing glow can distract actors and audience-members alike, particularly if something intense is supposed to be happening in the production itself but the audience is full of little, glowing screens… and audience members are looking at them instead of the stage.
Hence the reaction of most in the industry to Patti LuPone, who, on July 9 – having been annoyed by the glow of cell phones all through a matinee of “Shows for Days” – had finally had enough. That evening, a young woman in the front row spent the entire first portion of the play looking at her phone, and LuPone was done being nice. As she exited – as she usually did – through the audience, she reached over, pocketed the woman’s phone, and gave it to a stage manager so it could be returned at the end of the show.
The reaction was swift, and dual. When I mentioned this outside the theatrical community, there was outrage: “She had no right to do that,” was the common reaction. On the other hand, from those I know who are theater lovers, the reaction was congratulatory. Indeed, the overall impression was similar to that I felt when watching those kids with headphones: she (or someone else) paid a lot for that seat. Why did she come if she didn’t want to watch the show? And maybe, just maybe, those around her learned a lesson about how to be an audience. I tend to lean toward the latter, but I do understand that swiping someone’s possession, even temporarily, is fairly extreme.
But some audience members these days evoke the extreme. In that same week, also in New York, just before the start of an evening’s performance of “Hand to God,” an audience member climbed up on stage to plug his cell phone into the electrical plug on the show’s set. The plug was a fake (because… it was part of the SET), but the opening had to be delayed while a stage manager came out and cleared the phone. The general reaction to that was “What was that guy thinking?” Ironically, you can see this on YouTube too, because someone… wait for it… filmed it on his or her cell phone.
To simply finger-wag at the obsessive and tech savvy, however, would miss a larger point. We are growing into a people who simply do not know how to behave when in large groups. We see movies in our own homes, where we can talk to our partner, get up and walk around, even take the show we want to watch into a different room on our tablet. There is no longer, unless we’re willing to pay top price, even a chance for seeing films in the communality of a darkened theater. And when people do go to such places, top theaters such as the ArcLight chain have someone come in to gently remind people they are not at home and quiet is expected. Because you have to say that now.
Theaters are apparently the same way. That man who thought a piece of set was there for his personal convenience is symptomatic of the “I’m seeing it in my living room” philosophy. This lack of consideration for those around you has been experienced in a number of live productions – the drunks at the dinner theater I discussed a few weeks ago, the mother who chatted with her young daughter (who should have been learning how to behave in a live performance space) and handed her snacks from noisy bags all through a production of “Wicked” I attended a couple of years ago. These are symptomatic of a larger lack of empathy and/or respect for the communal wonder of live theatrical performance.
My mother, who taught middle school for a generation, used to say that for people in that age group (say, 12-14) the world is a movie put on for their benefit. When they walk out of a room, they intuitively believe that nothing happens until they walk back in. Teachers and such don’t have home lives, because that’s not how the students know them. Consequences come as a surprise, because all around them is – in their minds – really only going on in their heads.
The problem is, this attitude seems to now be spreading to adults, and live theater is most especially vulnerable, and thus having to deal with the results.
So, why am I writing about this just now? I’ve recently seen a few egregious bits of audience behavior which seem to underscore both the obliviousness and the electronics addiction of modern audience members, and I found it particularly annoying. The most recent came while attending a show at a small, but increasingly professional theater. I watched as a group of people in the front row, at one edge of the stage, proceeded to put their water bottles, and even a purse, on the stage itself, like it was a nearby shelf. Fortunately, their possessions were out of the area in which an actor would have to stand. On the other hand, their detritus was on full view to the rest of the audience. Besides, that was just extremely tacky.
Of course, audiences have been a trial at times since the days of Shakespeare and before. In those days they’d throw garbage at actors they didn’t like, and pour beer on each other. Then, and clear into the 19th century, audience members of the wealthier classes could actually sit on the stage, and interrupt as they felt was warranted. But it was assumed we had outgrown some of that foolishness – certainly the more we got into realism as an acting and production style.
Of course, the point could be made that even if they were throwing fruit, it was because they were engaged with the production, even if on an insult level. What bothers me the most about the obliviousness factor of today is that it means they are disengaged from the very thing they have come to watch. The patrons who have come to the theater with the intent to immerse themselves in the sights and sounds and insights on the stage lose out because of those who aren’t able to be fully present.
What can be done? As usual – and I admit I’m doing it – it’s easier to complain and highlight than to solve. Change will be a matter of group effort, I suppose. Perhaps the widespread publicity created by both Ms LuPone’s action and that idiot who thought a set was just another room created for his convenience will be a start. Perhaps these will spur people into thinking about how to appreciate what legitimate theater is: a communal experience of art and expression with a treasured immediacy no other medium can produce.
That would certainly be nice. In the meantime… wait. That was my cell phone. I think my editor has an assignment for me. BRB…