Ladies and gentlemen, as you entered the theatre this afternoon, you may have noticed the sign in the lobby asking you to please turn off all cell phones and electronic devices. Perhaps you also noticed the insert in your program, again reminding you to turn off your cell phone. And surely you heard the announcement that was made just before the play began, which once more reminded you to turn off your cell phone. Apparently all this has confused you, so I would like to clarify: when you go to the theatre, you are expected to turn off your cell phone. It's not a suggestion, it's a requirement. And you are not exempted just because you don't know how to operate your phone; ask someone under 70 to show you how to turn off the ringer.
While we're on the subject, I want to clear up one other tiny area of confusion: the actors on the stage? The people you've paid a lot of money to see? They are actually here, in person. Real live people, doing their jobs in this very room, a mere 10 yards away from where you sit. They are not on a screen, like Kramer and Jerry. They are not animatronic robots, like in Disney's Hall of Presidents. They are actual people. With that in mind, enjoy the show.
...Sigh. Yesterday I attended a matinee of The Clean House, at Lincoln Center's Newhouse Theater, which I'll review in a forthcoming post. If you take a moment to picture the kind of people likely to turn up to a Wednesday matinee at Lincoln Center, I think you'll agree that a certain amount of uncouth audience behavior must be expected. I was prepared to hear people loudly repeating jokes to their seat partners, or loudly asking their partners to repeat a joke they didn't catch. I was prepared for the occasional cell phone or beeping watch to interrupt the silence, in spite of the many warnings regarding same. But nothing could have prepared me for what happened during Act II. It was, of course, a climactic moment; Jill Clayburgh and Blair Brown were onstage, staring each other down, at the height of a dramatic confrontation, when... bleebleeblee! bleebleeblee! A cell phone. Some fumbling, much tsk-ing and turning around and staring and so on. The actors pretended not to notice. And then a voice, loud enough for everyone in the theatre to hear, says: "I can't talk now! I'm at a play."
Ladies and gentlemen, this person answered the phone. Some details, so you can picture the scene: the Newhouse is an intimate house, about 300 seats, with a thrust stage. Because there's no proscenium, the audience is always partially lit, and this person was sitting in the very last row of the center section, so everyone else in the theatre could see her. (I think it was a her.) And at this point everyone (including, I would imagine, the 2 actors onstage, who were already facing in that direction) turned to get a good look at her. How, we wondered, could we have spent all this time in the company of someone so dangerously stupid, and not realized it?
After a moment, the actors continued on as if nothing had happened, which disappointed me. There's a lot to be said for being professional, and facing the rudeness of any audience is an act of great heroism in my book. But when the audience member's behavior goes so far beyond inconsiderate, and when the distraction is so monumental, I think the only appropriate thing to do is to stop the show and acknowledge it. What wouldn't I have given to see Blair Brown drop character, shade her eyes and say, "Are you fucking kidding me?!" Even just an icy "Does anyone else need to make a call?" would have been great. Anything to drive home the fact that theatre is a live event, a shared experience, and that this particular shared experience had been inexcusably damaged by one idiot who didn't even realize that she'd done anything wrong. Maybe getting a reaction from the stage would have shocked this lady into realizing that, Good heavens! I'm not home watching TV! Maybe the shame of being dressed down by Blair Brown would have helped her to remember to leave her damn phone home next time. Or maybe not. But at least it would have released the tension for the rest of us, and allowed us to take a collective breath before refocusing our attention on the play-in-progress. Instead, the resentment just festered, palpably, for the rest of the performance, and at the curtain call I imagined that I could see the cast trying their best not to glare at us all. Who could blame them?
I saw the great Brian Murray in Hobson's Choice a few years back, at the Atlantic, another intimate Off-Broadway house. He, too, was right in the middle of a big onstage argument when a phone rang, and without breaking his stride, he yelled, "Stop it!" right at the actor he was in the middle of berating. Then he slowly turned to glare into the house, and I realized with a thrill that he was talking to us! The phone was silenced, everyone (except, presumably, the offending patron) applauded, and the play continued. And I'm pretty sure it didn't happen again. I'm quite sure that that particular person never forgot to turn off his or her phone again. After the show, I had the opportunity to speak to him briefly, and I told him how well I thought he'd handled the situation. He'd forgotten all about it by that point; it took him a moment to recall what I was talking about. He handled it and moved on, but for me it was a thrilling and memorable only-in-the-theatre experience. Whereas yesterday, hours after I left Lincoln Center, I was still fuming about the moron who got away with answering her phone, for chrissakes, in the middle of a play I wasn't even particularly enjoying. So, stage actors of the world, for what it's worth: I advocate the direct approach.
Anyone else have an opinion, or an even more shocking tale of audience idiocy? It might make me feel better.
P.S. A big hello and welcome to my visitors from A Tiny Revolution and the Dizzies! And anywhere else you may have come from. I hope you're glad you stopped by.