Theater has been a part of my life for 50 years, involving nearly 2,000 live plays and musicals. Going to the theater used to be a much-anticipated pleasure; now I dread most performances.
People used to go to theater to focus on the stage, engaging with the special world a play or musical creates. Now audiences appear more focused on themselves; the performance is just a part of an interactive, participatory event.
Technology plays a major part. Although cellphones rarely ring during performances anymore, they now distract as shining squares in the dark while texts and emails are being read and sent. They also float above audience members’ heads as their owners seek out good angles for photos and videos. I’ve had a Broadway show’s special effects ruined by someone near me filming them with his iPhone held high, shining brighter than what was on stage. I’ve had my concentration broken in a local theater by a woman in front of me keeping her cellphone on in her open purse, checking it constantly.
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Cellphones also affect a show’s quality by distracting the actors. Benedict Cumberbatch publicly pleaded with his fans not to take photos or videos during his “Hamlet” so he can give his best performance to London audiences. In her current New York show, Patti LuPone snatched a nonstop texter’s cellphone as she exited a scene, later prompting her to contemplate quitting live theater because of such distractions.
Yes, preshow announcements are made and ushers can be called into play, but cellphone activity continues boldly, with little to be done without additional disruption. Even the gentlest attempt to ask someone to stop receives the huffy response, “I’ve paid for this seat” or “Who are you to tell me what I can do?” A sense of entitlement now pervades, with the assumption that tickets allow purchasers to do whatever they please.
Live theater is morphing into the world of pop music concerts, where a relaxed, participatory atmosphere is expected and encouraged. Feedback to the performers, communication among audience members and consumption of refreshments in the seats are all part of that experience.
Theaters have to sell tickets. They want people to be comfortable and relaxed so they’ll come back. But plays and musicals are not created as group activities and depend on an audience’s attention to themes, emotions and characterizations to get the desired effect.
Nevertheless, more and more theaters allow drinks and food into performances. Besides the threat of spills and intoxicated behavior, constant drinking and eating is distracting. Empty containers on the floor lead to abrupt noises when kicked or stepped on. At a local theater, during an intensely emotional monologue, someone kicked over a beer bottle, its loud, bouncing clunks destroying the mood for the actor and for me. During a recent gripping family drama, constant crinkling of packaging and crunching of chips behind me became my focus instead of the fine work happening on stage.
How can someone be moved by the touching drama of “The Glass Menagerie” while concentrating on an electronic device or be enthralled by the bittersweet romance in “The King and I” while grappling with cookies and sodas? I want to give productions my undivided attention, hoping they will engage my heart and mind.
And to those who think their ticket means anything goes, I counter that I have a ticket, too, which should allow me to enjoy a production without unnecessary distractions.
Despite what seems the general acceptance of current audience behavior, I can’t believe I’m the only one being affected by it. But if this is the new norm, I guess my theatergoing days are nearing an end.
Roy C. Dicks has been a freelance performing arts critic for the N&O since 1997. firstname.lastname@example.org.