For the past two Septembers I’ve written columns about theater etiquette. In 2013, my headline was “Behave Yourself,” and last year I updated it to “Behave Yourself 2.0.” Please don’t think me old-fashioned, but it’s time for another reminder — I’m not the only one concerned about this.
Rude behavior has become a headline topic in the theater world. Cell phones go off at inopportune moments, occasionally causing an actor to stop performing altogether. A foolish man attending a Broadway show even thought it OK to climb onstage to charge his phone via a nonfunctional outlet on the wall of a set.
Tony Award winner Patti LuPone has become the patron saint — or perhaps the avenging angel — regarding cell phone behavior and more. In 2008 she stopped a performance of Gypsy to chastise an audience member who was taking flash photos. Earlier this year at Lincoln Center she stalked into the audience and snatched a mobile phone from a young woman who was repeatedly texting. In fact, LuPone has undertaken a personal crusade, advancing five rules people should follow that were published in the Wall Street Journal. Here they are:
“R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Be aware of your theatergoing neighbor. In front of you, behind you, to your right and left. Treat them with respect, unless you’re sitting next to a loud-mouthed idiot.
“Power Down: Turn off all electronic devices and watch the play instead.
“Have Dinner Beforehand: Refrain from eating and drinking in your seat. The majestic old ladies that are Broadway’s great theaters deserve your respect. The theater deserves your respect; it isn’t your kitchen. There is always intermission to imbibe.
“Use Judgment: Don’t feel obligated to give everything you see a standing ovation.
“Prepare for Bliss: Come to the theater with the expectation of being transported. Isn’t that why you bought the ticket?”
I say hooray for LuPone and her battle. Let’s follow her simple dictums. I want to expand on a few of her points, starting with mobile phones, the source of much of the current irritation. Our slavish attachment to these devices is a much larger social issue than I can combat in a column, but surely we can let them go for the few hours we spend in a theater, often having paid handsomely to gain admission. LuPone’s suggestion to embrace the world of the show and its hardworking performers seems like common sense. In fact, it’s a key to your greater appreciation.
The prohibition against taking photos is, in fact, a matter of safety: A camera flash can be blinding, and it can break an actor’s concentration. A phone’s ringtone is a maddening distraction to performers and audiences. And texting — even just checking the time — creates a momentary glow that catches other people’s attention and can be seen by actors onstage.
Bottom line, this behavior is simply rude. At the very least, you should silence your phone before you enter the theater. (If you use it at intermission, be sure to silence it again.) Even the vibration of a silenced phone can be heard by some, so it’s preferable to turn it off completely — or (gasp) leave it at home. You might have a better post-show conversation if you don’t have it with you!
Apparently New York City audiences sometimes bring fast food with them into the theater. I haven’t seen that in our civilized Cincinnati venues, but there’s scarcely a theater in town these days that doesn’t sell drinks you can bring to your seat. I have heard shaking ice and slurping through straws; the clink and roll of a beer bottle isn’t a rarity. This phenomenon is here to stay: Concessions represent revenue for theaters, and patrons believe a drink during a performance, a movie or a concert is a fundamental right. But I don’t think waiting for intermission or post-show is too much to ask.
Here’s a sobering thought from Miss LuPone: “We work hard onstage to create a world that is being totally destroyed by a few rude, self-absorbed and inconsiderate audience members … I am so defeated by this issue that I seriously question whether I want to work onstage anymore. Now I’m putting battle gear on to marshal the audience as well as perform.” Actors who feel so distracted cannot focus on entertaining us. Such behavior affects and possibly diminishes their performances.
I repeat my Golden Rule of Theater Attendance: Behave the way you would have others behave, with courtesy and thoughtfulness.
CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]