Thursday, January 11, 2007

You are all mad

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.


Jenny Davidson said...

I'm here from the Dizzies....

Two observations:

1. I well remember the first time a student took a call in one of my classes. It was my Literature Humanities section at Columbia a few years ago, and student G. was sitting right opposite me at the end of the seminar table. Her phone rang--rather than looking crushed with embarrassment and fumbling to turn it off, she totally answered it--I and all the other students looking on with horror and amazement--she looked at me, then started to get up, meanwhile pointing to the cellphone and mouthing at me the words "It's my mother!" When she came back from the hallway a few minutes later when the call was over, I very bluntly told her that I did not care whether or not it was her mother, but taking a call in class was entirely inappropriate! (However I do occasionally have an elderly "lifelong learner" auditor take a call in my lecture class, very annoying; and once I was at a small colloquium where Benoit Mandelbrot took a call and actually didn't even bother to step out of the room, it was quite extraordinary!)

2. Funny you say that about Brian Murray. I think it must be his particular thing. But I can top yours with an even better one--at the Beckett/Albee evening of short plays a few years ago (which is definitely in my top-five-theatrical-experiences-of-all-time, or maybe even single top one), a cellphone started ringing in the middle of Murray's Beckett one-man bit (can't remember the name, but he's the old man in the nightcap with the bedstead). Poor sucker with the phone audibly heard to say "Shit!" as he tried to get it off, none too soon. The second half was this lovely Albee "Counting the Ways" play, done in tiny vignettes and with a point where the actors are asked to step forward and break role and speak directly to the audience. Marian Seldes stepped forward and said something along the lines of "Well, really I'm not a very interesting person, I'm not sure what to say, I get up and then come to the theater and rehearse..." And then stepped back and let Murray step forward.

Well, he stepped forward and TORE into the guy with the cellphone. "Do you know how hard it is to remember those lines? It takes utmost concentration to deliver this Beckett stuff! And you..." Really FULMINATING, it was great. And then he had a devilish pause (it was the evening of the notorious California recall election) and said, "I was just listening to the radio in my dressing room. And I have only two more words for you. GOVERNOR SCHWARZENEGGER!"

And then the play took up again, and it was the most utterly magical thing I have ever seen...

Mollie said...

Ooh, I saw (and enjoyed) Beckett/Albee too, but I wish I'd been there the night you were! He must have been so looking forward to that moment.

I'm glad you didn't feel compelled to be polite to the student who took a call in your class. Good lord. Why do some people feel compelled to answer their phone, no matter what they're doing when it rings? The whole point of a cell phone is to free you from that obligation! It does seem like the older you get, the less likely you are to understand the value of caller ID and voicemail...

That reminds me, once, on the first day of a lecture course I took in college, a phone rang, and the professor took it from the owner and answered it for him. No phones rang in that class for the rest of the semester.

Anonymous said...

I was once at a scientific conference when a speaker's cell phone rang during her lecture. She fumbled around in her bag and (I assumed) turned it off. A few minutes later, it rang again. "Surely," I thought to myself, "surely she will turn it off this time." Nope. Another minute or so later, it rang a third time, at which point SHE ANSWERED IT and told the caller that she couldn't talk right now, she was giving a lecture.

Nemir said...

I figured Mollie might appreciate this (speaking of the joys of live theater):

I recently played Cinderella in Into the Woods, and I had two scenes where I had to run onstage and fall down. Luckily, my golden slippers were a size too big and slick on the bottom, so falling down became a simple matter of not-trying-to-not-fall-down.

One night I had quite a spectacular tumble and managed to kick one of my golden slippers into the audience. I took a moment to consider whether I really needed that shoe, decided that I did, and climbed offstage to get it (still in character).

The dialogue had never seemed so appropriate:

Baker's Wife: My, you do take plenty of spills.

Cinderella: (climbing back onto the stage) It's these shoes! They're not at all suited for the surroundings.

Mollie (the other one) said...

This is a story not about a cell phone, but about a really irritating laugh. I went to school with a kid known for his awful laugh--an incredibly loud, braying noise. Not his fault, you know, and most people were pretty good-humored about it, but a really awful sound nevertheless. A friend of mine was starring in Arcadia at the college theater, and I happened to be at the same production as the Laughing Guy, and after putting up with it for some hour and a half while delivering Stoppard dialogue, the friend in question turned to the audience after one particularly obnoxious hee-haw and delivered, to the delight and relief of the rest of the audience, a clipped, in-character, "Oh do shut up."

Mollie said...

Oh my, I feel bad for that guy, but I love that story. When I saw August: Osage County I sat right behind a girl who had the most ridiculous, whooping laugh I'd ever heard. It was a little frightening, and very distracting -- and every time she laughed I felt the whole theatre (or at least the whole mezzanine) was looking in my direction. I found myself hoping the play would get less funny so she wouldn't have occasion to laugh again. I feel sorry for her -- but if I were actually with her, I would make sure I never went to a play or movie with her again.