Thursday, July 9, 2015

To the future(ish) patrons of the theatre

I just heard about yet another instance of an actor reprimanding an audience member. In this case, Ms. Patti LuPone grabbed a cell phone from a patron on her way out of a scene in Lincoln Center. And while I snickered (and admittedly reposted, because it’s hell-yes fabulous), I fear the forest will be missed for the trees once again.

We need audiences. Without them, there is no theatre. Sure, people are living beings and will move and make noise, that’s part of the magic of live theatre. But mutual respect between the stage and the house is the goal. Everyone being on the same team, involved in the same experience. Nobody wants to break character and take away from the integrity of the show to be a babysitter. That’s why there are preshow announcements and notes in the program reminding us all to behave. So let me be clear: yes, it’s a glorious moment of schadenfreude to see someone get their comeuppance for behaving badly.  However, if you don’t already feel as if you’ve embarrassed yourself by having a cell phone light in your face through whole scene in your $90 seat, or by walking on set to charge your phone in a fake outlet, I don’t see a real lesson being learned beyond spectacle and Twitter-flogging. And it scares the hell out of me that people will go to a show subconsciously hoping to leave with an anecdote about a patron getting schooled.

The first play I ever saw in Chicago was ‘The Drawer Boy’ at Steppenwolf with John Mahoney, Frank Galati, and Johnny Galecki in 2001. I was still in college in Ohio, and had come along as moral support for my friend who was auditioning for an MFA program. We scored rush tickets, pushing back our six hour drive home to the middle of the night because if we had the chance to see these three onstage, it was worth drinking our weight in coffee and pulling an all-nighter. I was enthralled. The intimacy of the main stage, the technique of the actors, the naturalistic style. To a college theatre student, it was mind blowing. 

At one point, John Mahoney's character had a long monologue, and as I was staring at him like a puppy, I heard a cell phone ring. And ring. And ring. We were up in one of the small balconies, and I heard it like it was next to me, it was so loud. I couldn’t believe it. And then, John Mahoney stopped talking, and looked down at his hands. It was a pause that would make Shatner blush, and it was excruciating. Holy shit, is John Mahoney going to yell at someone? Didn’t Brian Dennehey just do that at the Goodman? Did he lose his lines? What is happening?  When the ringing stopped, he played it off and resumed where he left off. It was incredibly professional, and a good lesson for a green actor to learn. He never broke character for a second. Not a twitch.

But there was a small part of me that was disappointed. I wanted him to tell this person to turn off their goddamn phone. I couldn’t help it. And that is unnerving. But at that moment, I wasn't wondering what was going to happen to the two brothers in the story, I was wondering if an actor was going to kick some ass. He didn't break character, but it was broken for him anyway. That is what I remember most about that show, a cell phone during a monologue. That was fourteen years ago, and while our phones have improved a thousand times over, we’ve just gotten worse. 

It is not ok that this keeps happening. It is not funny that this keeps happening. 

I work in theatre, but more often, I’m an audience member. And what I want most is to be lost in a show. What I do not want is to be put in the awkward position of either having to ask, or get house management to ask, another patron to stop talking/stop eating/stop texting, or sit in passive silence and try to block them out. You have put the responsibility of your tact on me, and anyone around you. And that is not fair; especially if she drove in from another city to be there, or he scrimped and saved to take his child who begged for tickets for months. If they rescheduled a night of work, or are injured and in pain, but really want to be there. If this is her daughter’s first lighting design gig, or he’s seeing his son’s professional acting debut after years of worrying he’d never get a job after scraping to put him through school. If this is her big night on the town before she starts treatment, or they just wanted to try something new and didn’t know anything about the show beforehand.  No matter what the scenario, if it is impossible to find a way to justify paying full attention to a live show with live performers and live production staff, at least respect your fellow patrons. You never know what this night means to them, or what it really cost for them to be there.

Ultimately, I would prefer the momentary distraction of you leaving if you’re not into it, to watching you get owned for being bored, or worse, hoping that you do. I would rather leave with the story I came to see than another anecdote.