SWITCH IT OFF! - Article and Forum

SWITCH IT OFF! - Article and Forum

Peter Pinne asks have we lost the art of theatre etiquette?

Once upon a time audiences at a theatrical performance respected the actors and other audience members. They remained quiet at appropriate times, laughed at appropriate times, and applauded at the end of the show. These days it’s a different story.

Patti Lupone’s performance in the 2008 revival of Gypsy has become legendary, and not for all the right reasons. Yes, she was a brilliant Momma Rose, but she will long be remembered as the diva who stopped singing “Rose’s Turn” mid-song because an audience member was videoing her performance. Livid, she abused said member and would not continue until they had been ejected. Her actions have now become theatrical folklore.

A similar thing happened when Brian Dennehy was playing on Broadway in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. An emotional moment was shattered when suddenly a cell phone started to ring and kept on ringing. Dennehy stopped the performance, moved to the front of the stage, and said, “answer the f**cking phone.”

A more recent example happened in September when Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig were playing the two-hander A Steady Rain on Broadway. They were interrupted by a cell phone ringing. Jackman immediately spat the dummy. Staying in character, he had a go at the offending audience member, saying, “You wanna get that? You wanna get that? Grab it. I don’t care.”
The moment was captured on You Tube. Comments have been for and against Jackman's action.
One viewer wrote: "If I would have been Hugh I would have told them to put the spot light on the dumbass who's phone was ringing. And then I would have said, "Now you look more stupid than important don't you dumbass?" Then I would have refused to go on until he was escorted out of the theatre."
Another was critical of Jackman: "What an ass, i would of walked out … He shows no respect to the audience, so i would be out of there."

Before a show starts there is usually an announcement telling patrons to switch off phones, beepers, and such, but nothing is ever said about not talking during a performance. When I saw The Little Mermaid on Broadway the two people sitting to my right were from Sweden and during the performance one of them kept translating what was happening into Swedish. It wasn’t just for a moment, but for the entire performance. That I was a little angry was an understatement, considering one pays $100 or more for a ticket these days.

At each performance of Light in the Piazza, a musical that was one-third sung in Italian, Lincoln Center chose to make their pre-performance announcement regarding turning off cell phones etc in Italian. They obviously thought it was cute. (I thought it was pretentious). Once again, the woman to my right kept translating to her friend, who obviously did not speak Italian, just what was happening on stage. Two hours of Italian translation is not my idea of a night in the theatre.

Back in the fifties, Moira Carleton, a Grande Dame of Melbourne theatre, was seated in the Little Theatre one night behind two women who kept talking during the show. After being irritated for some time, she tapped one of them on the shoulder and imperiously said, “Would you mind speaking up? I can still hear the actors.”

Back in Shakespeare’s day, if an audience did not like the play or performance, they showed it by throwing rotten fruit and vegetables at the actors.

400 years later in the 1920s and 1930s, London audiences had moved on from throwing rotten fruit and vegetables to simply throwing abuse. London’s Gallery First Nighters would frequently demolish a performer or show with their constant heckling. They were the bane of many an actor’s life.

At Barbra Streisand’s last concert performance in New York in 2006, an audience member, fed up with her political ranting, called out “get on with it.” She promptly told him to “shut the f*ck up,” which some IT genius immediately recorded and set to rap music. The track was suddenly all over the internet and generated millions of hits.

So, have audiences got worse or better? The IT revolution has put a different spin on it, but they’re obviously much the same, as a recent report in the Bangkok Post proves. At a touring performance of Chicago which played there in English, a patron not only took phone calls on her mobile phone during the show, but when interval came she promptly pulled out a portable television set and proceeded to watch her favorite Thai soap opera. What’s more, when the second act started she continued to watch it. Obviously what was happening on screen was much more interesting than what was happening on stage.

Ah, an actor’s life is not an easy one!

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