We’ve all read the headline-grabbing stories lately about audience members making major faux pas while taking in some live theatrical entertainment. Answering their cell phones ortexting mid-performance, recording entire shows, and, yes, even attempting to charge a cell phone in a set’s non-working electrical outlet, these patrons are enough to irritate the calmest fellow audience members. And, once the dialogue starts, don’t we all have our own “patrons behaving badly” theater stories?
In our experiences as theatregoers, we’ve all heard and seen varying levels of distractions. Crinkling candy wrappers. The instantaneous recognition of a blue phone screen lighting up. Irritating ringtones. The even more infuriating answering of said irritating ringtones. And, the never popular, super loud conversations between patrons about the onstage interactions, as if watching a show in the privacy of their living room rather than in a public venue.
As an amateur community theater actor, though, I can only say that I totally understand why some of these upper echelon actors are speaking out about the problem. While the rudeness can turn into fodder for epic, sometimes hilarious backstage stories, in the moment they’re more than simple irritations. Any sound or unexpected visual (such as a flash or blinking red light) can throw off your focus and completely extract you from the moment, especially as an actor. We’ve all learned strategies (sometimes trial by fire) to help maintain that focus, but the dreaded “break” happens without notice. Remembering lines and cues and blocking and simply not losing one’s composure when hearing a rude comment about oneself takes a lot.
But, beyond the annoyance, it begs a question: are audiences really getting worse these days?
It all depends on your perspective. Some may think that the technology-based distractions call out a far more disappointing trend: the devolving of society into a narcissistic state. So many people think that whatever is happening in their life at the moment is more important than general courtesy. While it’s not the norm, the more focused we are on our devices, the less attention we pay to our immediate surroundings.
Remember when we were able to go out for a night of enjoyment without needing to be reached or having that desperate “where’s my phone?!” feeling? Feels like a long time.
But, let’s go even further back, to a very different time. When was the last time you saw theatregoers come armed with rotten eggs and tomatoes to throw? Have you read any articles citing actors having been tarred and feathered for horrific performances?
In Shakespeare’s time, an audience would scarcely resemble that of today (unless perhaps you’re attending an incredibly historically accurate Shakespeare festival). Going to the theater was as much an event as the onstage happenings, so it was common to see audience members get up to gossip and catch up, eat full-on meals, drink, brawl…you get the idea. As with today, there were those (who generally paid more for their attendance and possibly saved up their pennies to do so) who grew incredibly annoyed with the behavior. Yet, it was a general norm of the times.
While I beg that all theatregoers consider the evening’s experience as a whole – for themselves, for those around them, and the performers – I dare not say that I hope that we can return to the days of yore as an example of courtesy and decorum. Perhaps just a bit of the golden rule (and humor when dealing with an offender) will bring us all some much-needed peace and enjoyment