Audiences are rude. We want to be constantly wired to our phones and tablets. When our phones ring no matter how inappropriate the venue we have to answer it...right now! if only to tell the person calling "I can't talk right now."
The situation in live performance venues has gotten so bad that the list of "please don't" recited before the show begins gets longer and longer and contains more specific electronic hardware. How did we get this bad and what can theaters do to return the live performance experience to an enjoyable experience for both the performers and the audience members?
It all began with "the taking of photographs, with or without flash, and the use of recording devices is strictly prohibited." A lot of audience members are unaware that if the curtain is up and the set is visible taking a picture of it is infringing on the designer's copyright. A number of theaters' request that you don't take pictures of the interior of the theater for the same reason. A blanket prohibition gets the cameras put away from the beginning. You may think that the one shot you take won't bother anyone, but the click of the shutter and, with modern cameras, the glare of the screen provides an annoying destraction. The great Katharine Hepburn once stopped a performance to ask the photographing audience member if he was done. If you find that appalling here's a personal experience that The Thespian found utterly unbelievable.
The Thespian was attending a performance of La Traviata by the Washington National Opera at The Kennedy Center. Five minutes before the performance began a couple took their seats about four rows in front of where The Thespian was seated. The woman was dressed to the nines ready for an evening in the Opera House. The man was dressed in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. (The Thespian swears she is not making this up) The orchestra tuned and the curtain speech was given. Overture begins, curtain up...video camera up. He starts filming the performance. His camera had a very bright screen. Fellow audience members loudly asked him to stop and he would, for five or ten minutes at a time. At the first intermission The Thespian fetched an usher and explained what was going on and pointed out where the couple was sitting. Act two begins with an usher poised nearby ready to pounce. The couple was late returning to their seats and had visited the Kennedy Center gift shop. Not five minutes later there was the crash of broken glass. Yep, they stepped on their gift shop bag and something broke. Something small and round was also in the bag and it spilled and loudly rolled under the seats. At this point the woman in the couple gave up and left, the man followed a couple of minutes later when he realized that she wasn't coming back.
"Please turn off all cellular phones, pagers, signal watches and Bluetooth devises.". How many times have you listened to a curtain speech and done a silent ten second countdown as all around your seat you are serenaded by the dulcet ringtones as phones are turned off? Why do we have to be constantly at everyone's reach? Back in the olden days you left the box office phone number with the babysitter or let the usher know your seat number and that you might be expecting to be contacted in the event of an emergency. Do we need to revisit that quaint old custom?
Arena Stage located in southwest Washington DC makes announcements asking you to turn off your cell phone before you enter the theater. The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton , Virginia asks that if you turn on your cell phone at intermission that you exit the theater even if you aren't making a phone call. Here's another personally witnessed faux pas.
The Thespian attended a performance of War Horse at Lincoln Center. There was not a verbal curtain speech before the performance. Instead, there was an insert in the program in large type which requested that all electronic devices be turned off as they might interfere with the sound equipment used for the performance. In addition, the ushers walked the aisles a few minutes before the performance began asking everyone to turn off their cell phones. The lights dim, the music begins...and in the row in front of The Thespian a cell phone rings. The audience member doesn't quickly silence it. Oh, no, he answers the phone. "Hello. I can't talk right now. I'm at a show. It's starting right now." An usher was right there and she became my theatrical heroine as she said to him, "What is wrong with you?"
The wonderful Artistic Director of Arena Stage, Molly Smith, always ends her recorded curtain speech with "and unwrap those candies.........now". Getting a coughing fit cannot be helped especially in the often dry air in a theater. It never fails that when you get a tickle in your throat it always happens at the most quiet part of the performance. The mistake many audience members make is unwrapping the cough drop or candy really, really slowly. Here's a tip: if you have to rummage for something in your pocket or purse, it's going to make noise no matter how much you try to stay quiet. Better to get it out quickly and be done with it.
Food items are a completely different animal. It is rare in American theater to have food and beverages allowed in the actual theater. (The Thespian had Walls Ice Cream in the West End. The House Manager in me cringed) There are exceptions, but most professional theaters don't allow it. It makes cleanup difficult and the noise of eating and drinking can be a distraction to the performers. So, if the venue does not allow food, don't smuggle it in and snack after intermission.
The Thespian was attending a performance of South Pacific at The Kennedy Center. In the middle of "This Nearly Was Mine" there came from the seats directly behind The Thespian the crinkle of cellophane being slowly unwrapped. At first, The Thespian thought it was a cough drop. But, the noise continued for a lengthy period of time. The Thespian's husband turned around...and the audience member was mindlessly eating a box of Milk Duds.
What are the solutions to our rude behavior? Put away the cameras. Turn off the cell phones as soon as you arrive at the theater or no later than when you first sit down in your seat. Don't take food and drink to your seat unless the venue allows you to do so. If you are concerned that you have to reached, let the box office or house manager know your seat number and give the theater's phone number to your babysitter or other emergency contact person.
All it takes is common sense and simple human decency and the live performance experience can be pleasant for everyone.