audience etiquette

This weekend I attended a performance of the musical Hello Dolly! in which my daughter played the lead role of Dolly Levi.  Of course, I was very excited to see my “little girl” performing a leading role.  But my experience was marred, nearly ruined, by the people who sat in front of me.  This was just one of many recent situations I’ve encountered where audience members exhibit rude and inconsiderate behaviors that interfere with my enjoyment, as well as the enjoyment of others around them. 

First let me tell the story.  My family and friends arrived early so we could obtain good seats (there were no reserved seats, just general admission).  We sat front and center so we could see and hear everything.  Just before the show began, however, a family of very tall people filed in and sat in the row in front of us.  I know people can’t control their height, but I think that if you know you are really tall, you should at least slouch down in your seat a bit so the people behind you can see.  There were 6 or 7 people in this group.  In front of me were two sons and the mother, who was sitting next to another (very tall) woman that may have been an aunt. 

The boy directly in front of me was young and very restless.  He twisted and turned and twitched and complained through most of the show – his favorite habit was placing his hands on the arm rests and lifting himself off the seat, which made him even taller and more difficult to see around.  After intermission, he wasn’t there, and I was hoping that he had decided to wait in the car or sit somewhere else.  But no – he returned after the lights were out and Act II had begun, making everyone in his row stand to allow him to return to his seat.  There were empty seats nearby – in my opinion, he should have just taken another seat on the aisle, rather than disturbing the entire center section with his late return.

The boy to his left was extremely tall and had a shaven head.  I don’t fault his height (after all, my own son is 6’6″), but again I think he could have slouched a bit.  However, my issue with him was that he had drinks in the auditorium with him, even though signs were posted everywhere prohibiting food and beverage.  And of course, when he wanted a drink, he had to shift around, find the container on the floor, pop it open, and then slug it down with his elbow in the air, in front of me.

But by far the worst offenders were the mom and the (presumed) aunt.  The program began with an announcer asking everyone to turn off their cell phones, as usual, but he also specifically asked people to turn off their cameras and not take pictures during the performance.  This prohibition is common for performances of this type, and it is generally known that it’s inappropriate to use your camera during a theatrical performance.  At least, it should be.  Performers can be distracted by flashes going off during the show.  Even if the flashes are turned off, the cameras emit red or orange flashing light when a photo is taken.  There are also copyright issues involved with photographing a show in progress.  But I don’t think people realize how distracting it can be for other audience members.  When you’re sitting in a dark auditorium, with your attention focused on the stage, it is extremely irritating to have a digital camera’s glowing LED screen emitting light near you.  And the two women in front of me didn’t just take one or two photos during the show – they were constantly snapping pictures of everyone, including my daughter.  Will my daughter have access to these photos?  Will I?  No.  But I had to watch this woman hold her camera up above her head to take the pictures – right in my line of sight – and then check the pictures in her display screen and show them to her other family members.  The other, taller woman was doing the same thing. 

This is just the ultimate in rudeness, in my opinion.  To (mis)quote Brendan Fraser’s character in Blast From the Past, having good manners simply boils down to placing other people’s needs ahead of your own.  In a performance situation like opera, musical comedy, symphony, etc., the audience is meant to pay close, sustained attention to the action on the stage.  Anything that interferes with or disrupts that interaction between performer and viewer is counter-productive to the artistic endeavor.  Cameras, cell phones, refreshments, talking – all of those things distract the viewer from the artistic experience.  The rudeness comes in because the person who is taking pictures, talking on the phone, drinking a soda, or talking to a neighbor is only thinking about their own need rather than the needs of the corporate audience.  They think, “My daughter is in the chorus and I want pictures of her, so I don’t care if I break the rules, interfere with other people’s enjoyment, or distract the other performers while they’re trying to entertain me.  My needs are more important than anyone else’s.” 

This happens at the movies so frequently that I’ve almost decided to avoid seeing movies in-house altogether.  Last summer I went to see Iron Man, a movie I had really been excited about seeing.  But right down the row from where I sat was a family with an infant and a two-year-old.  The infant cried and the two-year-old whined and fussed during the entire movie.  A few weeks later I went to see the latest Indiana Jones movie, which, again, I eagerly anticipated.  But a woman sitting in the row behind me and to my left kept asking her two boys if they understood the plot, or she would ask them what someone in the movie said, or she would predict what was going to happen next.  All of this was done in a normal voice – not whispering or even talking softly – the kind of voice you would use when talking on the phone in your office, for example.  I finally turned around and asked her to please talk softly, but what I really wanted to do was to tell her to shut up!  These are just two examples – there are always teenagers running up and down the aisles, people talking on their phones or texting, etc.  And by the way, just because texting isn’t talking doesn’t mean it’s not distracting.  The glowing screen of your phone lights up the dark theater and takes me out of the movie and back into reality, which is the opposite of how a film-viewing experience should be.

So, let’s get to the bottom line, people.  Not every audience experience is the same.  There are different standards for behavior, based on the type of performance and venue.  In a rock concert, or at a football game, it is OK to have snacks and drinks with you, it is OK to talk to your friends, and it is OK to cheer or sing along.  It’s OK to take photos during a rock concert or football game, and it’s OK to leave and return whenever you feel like it.  NONE of these are OK during a theatrical performance!  It doesn’t have as much to do with the type of music as it does the venue.  For example, if I’m listening to jazz in a nightclub, or if I’m listening to a string quartet playing in the lobby of the art museum, it’s OK to get up and leave when I need to, and it’s OK to talk quietly to my friends.  It may even be OK to take some pictures, but surely not very many, as it could be distracting to the performers.  But in a theater, whether it’s a college auditorium or the Metropolitan Opera House, it is emphatically NOT OK to bring in food and drink, talk, or take pictures. 

Finally, it is NOT OK to bring babies or small children to theatrical performances, not even movies – unless the movie is made specifically for young children.  Children should be taught, at an early age, what is and is not appropriate.  They CAN be taught.  The last time I went to a symphony concert in the Meyerson, there was a man with his son sitting in front of me.  The little boy appeared to be about 8 or 9 years old.  He sat quietly during the entire concert.  When he had an occasional comment or question, he whispered in his dad’s ear and was quietly satisfied with a whispered reply.  When the concert was over, I made a special effort to compliment the boy and his father for the little boy’s stellar behavior.  Parents who want their children to accompany them to theatrical performances, or even to movies, should first expend the effort to teach their children appropriate audience etiquette.  And they should also be prepared to model the appropriate behaviors themselves.  Not only did the mother who sat in front of me this weekend interrupt my enjoyment of my daughter’s most important performance to date, she also modeled rudeness and low-class behaviors to her own children.  That’s not a legacy worth passing on.