Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Theatre Etiquette, Part Two

Theatre Etiquette, Part Two

As regular readers will know, I thoroughly enjoyed a performance last week of the Jungle Theatre's K2. Well, almost.

You see, right during the middle of the performance, something occurred that I've never before experienced in a theatre. It came from the audience. It blew me away.

As the two fine actors were attempting to soar to new heights on the stage, one audience member selfishly put himself way above everyone else in that theatre by keeping his cell phone turned on.

It wasn't just that the cell phone went off, mind you. The walkie talkie feature was active, allowing the self-absorbed "patron," along with everyone else including the actors, to hear his companion's conversation starter. This was absolutely unforgivable. The individual did eventually leave the confines of the theatre (so sorry if the show was interrupting your conversation!) -- I can only hope that the theatre forbid him entry back into the show.

Incredibly enough, there is a federal law that by extension forbids the blocking of cell phone signals. This arcane, antiquated law -- the Communications Act of 1934, section 333 -- makes it illegal to interfere with radio communications. But it was enacted long before anyone fathomed that virtually every individual could be a walking, talking radio transponder thanks to breakthroughs in communications technology. Until an exemption is granted by either the FCC or Congress, stage and movie theatres alike are barred from blocking cell phone signals.

Until then, what is it with people anyway? As I noted last November, I'm continually amazed at the number of people who forget that they're no longer in the comfort of their own living room when they go to see a live stage performance.

Cell phones go off, people have conversations (at my recent visit to London's Wicked, actual spoken conversations were taking place all over!), they unwrap candies, some insist on text messaging or scrolling through their BlackBerrys, a couple take flash photos and a few even hum along to the musical score (I had to tell the lady sitting behind me at London's Evita to please be quiet -- she was offended!).

As my SOB Poll from last November/December shows, I'm not alone in destesting appalling behavior.

It's bad enough for those of us sitting in the audience, but these jerks need to give some consideration to the actors. Lest the buffoons think that no one on stage can hear or see them, think again. Steppenwolf's excellent ensemble member Tracy Letts lets 'er rip with a well-founded denunciation of all dummies who take it upon themselves to single-handedly ruin the theatre experience for everyone else, including the actors.

If you're going to behave badly, stay home where you belong.

I'd love to hear about your personal experiences with lapses in good theatre etiquette.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Related Stories:
Theatre Etiquette, Part One (November 30, 2006)

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At 01 May, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahhh...the current sense of entitlement is the culprit here. "Hell, I paid a hundred dollars for this play, I oughta be able to make as much noise as I like!"

When in NYC recently with students, at two Broadway shows, I told them all to turn their phones off. "But can we put them on 'vibrate?'" came the response.

No. Off. Vibrate still makes noise, as does the disturbance you create while fumbling for the phone to see what you've missed. The poor etiquette starts young, with ignorance, then becomes unconscious habit.

In fact, the morning of our first Broadway show, we were in St. Patrick's cathedral. I offered a similar warning, but told them that should their phone go off in church, that my fury would be exceeded only if their phone went off in a Broadway theater.

Not one of our students cause a distraction.

At 01 May, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I saw A Moon for the Misbegotten, a phone did start to ring during a particularly emotional scene between Eve Best and Kevin Spacey. It didn't quite sound like a normal cell-phone ringtone, so at first, I thought maybe it was part of the play. Then it rang again. Eve Best handled it brilliantly. Without missing a beat, she said something to the effect of, "That noise is far away and doesn't matter. So don't pay any attention to it." Everyone applauded!

I guess I'm of two minds about blocking cell-phone signals. I agree that it is rude, to the actors and to the audience members, and 99.9 percent of the time the call is not an emergency. But as a caregiver, I also know that if I didn't have a cell phone, I wouldn't be able to go anywhere.

Luckily, I had emergency backup in place during my trip to New York, so I did turn my cell phone off when I was at the theater.

I realize that my situation is fairly unique. But if they do block cell-phone signals, I think at least theaters should make some provisions for people who really do need to be reached in an emergency. If I had the option of, say, leaving the phone with a theater staff member who would come get me if I had an emergency call, that would be fine. I could enjoy the show with some peace of mind and know that I wouldn't be disturbing anyone.

At 01 May, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

As I'm sure the fine folks at St. Patrick's would have said (if they had only known), BLESS YOU!!! You're clearly an educator who cares, so my hat's off to you.

And you're absolutely right about the vibrate function on cell phones. They're every bit as distracting.

Personally, I love the fact that I'm tuning out the rest of the world for a couple short hours so I may savor every moment of my theatrical experience.

At 01 May, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, Many theatres already do provide the type of service to their customers. Surely if the day comes when they are allowed to block signals, most will figure out how to provide those with emergencies (including doctors who are patrons) to receive urgent messages with minimal distractions to others.

At 02 May, 2007, Blogger Mondschein said...

The most recent cell phone insult was at a performance of "Deuce" last week. Just as the house lights dim, there is an announcement about turning off cell phones. Then as the play begins, there is a recording, THAT IS PART OF THE SHOW, about turning off cell phones as a courtesy to the unseen tennis players. TWO ANNOUNCEMENTS and yet...

Although the idiot down the row from me whose phone was ringing didn't answer it, she did let it ring long enough so that she could see the caller ID. I also heard the man behind her give her a brief, though likely unregarded chastisement.

The worst example of this I've experienced was during the revival of "Oklahoma" - 3 cell phones ringing during just the first act.

I've witnessed the myriad offenses - texting, vibrating phones - all of it, and it doesn't seem to be getting any better.

I have heard that the Russians have approved and started blocking phone signals in their theatres and cinema.

As for contact in case of an emergency: if such contact is so important then STAY HOME where you can be found without disturbing others. If you want to go to the theatre, go when you're NOT on call.

Thanks for the opportunity to vent!

At 02 May, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's why God created House Management - leave the phone with an usher. The discreet movement of an usher is vastly superior to these devices going off in the house.

I mean, that's what they did before...

At 02 May, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Thanks for both comments.

Mondschein's examples just make me even angrier at the complete lack of consideration individuals show for others. You are also correct about the Russians using technology to block signals in theatres. Unfortunately, while the technology exists, installations in U.S. theatres would violate current radio communications laws as outlined in my post. An exception could come via one of two ways: via federal legislation enacted by Congress or via Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rulemaking.

On the broader topic, it may be difficult for some of my younger readers to remember, but there was a day not too far into the distant past when we had no cell phone technology and had to rely on other means of getting information, including during times of emergencies. I recall using pay phones during intermissions to "check-in." One hour of waiting was not going to change the vast majority of "emergencies."

While it may be a discussion for another day, this whole of idea of having to be connected 24/7 is complicating our lives rather than making them easier; far too people are addicted to their personal electronic devices and gadgets, whether it's the cell phone or BlackBerry. The idea of being entertained is that you suspend all the rest of your reality for a limited finite period of time without any outside distractions.

At 02 May, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I definitely agree. What I enjoy about going to a movie or to the theater or even a good book, is the chance to remove myself from all the cares and worries of everyday life and lose myself in another world for a little while.

However, passing a law that allows theaters to block cell-phone signals seems a little Draconian to me. It's like saying, if people won't be considerate of each other on their own, we're going to legislate good manners and outlaw rude behavior.

Certainly, there are things that should be a matter of law - allowing equal access to the theater or banning picture-taking that infringes on a copyright or anything that might pose a security hazard.

It seems to me that if you buy a ticket, you've entered into an agreement to obey the rules of the venue, whether that means no glass bottles at the ballpark or no cell-phone conversations during the show or no food in the theater.

While I'm sure theater managers are reluctant to do this, if an audience member is creating a nuisance, he or she should simply be asked to leave. If it happens often enough, I'm sure that word will get around. Should the government really have to step in if theater management won't do its job?

BTW, I had no idea that the vibrate function was distracting. I've had my phone on vibrate, but no one's ever called me! And I would have no problem leaving my phone with an usher. I'd actually prefer to do that rather than worry about it ringing during a performance.

At 02 May, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, On this point, we must part ways.

In April 2003, New York City enacted a law outlawing use of cell phones in "any indoor theater, library, museum, gallery, motion picture theater, concert hall or building in which theatrical, musical, dance, motion picture, lecture or other similar performances are exhibited."

Perhaps Mayor Michael Bloomberg joins you in thinking this is "draconian" since he vetoed the legislation, but the New York City Council overrode him, perhaps agreeing with the vast majority of theatregoers who wish to enjoy the production on stage rather than the one in the audience.

If you are caught, you may be fined up to $50. So, with that in mind, clearly many individuals are in violation of the law.

But now that it is law, let's enable theatres the opportunity to decide for themselves whether or not to install jamming devices. My argument is that the arcane federal law never took into account the day when a thousand+ people might have their own communications devices, conceivably in transmit mode.

By exempting theatres, the FCC or Congress would not be mandating that theatre owners install such jamming devices, but instead giving them that option. Doesn't seem draconian to me.


At 02 May, 2007, Blogger Waldorf said...

I've got to throughly agree with this and your post last year. I think our worst experience was 3 women who had hit the bar straight after work, and then headed off to the theatre.

They were also expecting a laugh a minute show - obviously misled by the fact the director and the performer were both better known for their all-out comedy roles.

This resulted in really inappropriate laughter at all the wrong places in what was quite a poignant story.

It's sad when you have to comment on the audience behaviour in your review.

I'm not sure either technology or laws have the answer here. I think we need to have a manners test when purchasing tickets.


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