The Five: The Truth Is, They Don’t Give A Fuck

Anthony R. Miller checks in with some sad facts.

Hey you guys, so there has been a lot of news these days about theatre patrons gone wild. Whether Patti Lupone is drop kicking people texting or people are plugging their phones into sets during the show and taking a selfie, theatre makers of the highest or smallest budgets don’t know what the fuck to do. We want to blame iPhones, social media, millennials, casual theatre goers, but the truth may be easier than that. The truth is, when a theatre patron does something so tacky you could implode, it’s not because they were unaware of the standards, or rules, or theatre etiquette. It’s because they didn’t give a fuck.

As it turns out I have some thoughts expanding on the topic, and it turns out there are five.

Nothing New

About a million years ago, back in the late ’90s, Patrick Stewart performed at my college. Every year he would do a one man version of “A Christmas Carol” as a benefit for Shakespeare Santa Cruz. I got to work the light hang, and as a bonus we got to watch the show from the light booth. Now here’s the part I’ll never forget; an audience member was taking photos and Sir Patrick spots her, and all of a sudden, looks her dead in the eye and says: “We can have a performance, or we can have a photo shoot, it’s your choice”. You bet your bottom dollar that she put it away, and then he snapped right back into the show like nothing happened, like a god damn boss. Now, this was in 1996, long before everyone had a cell phone, much less a phone that took pictures. No, this lady brought a regular old 35mm film camera. She knew she wasn’t supposed to, but she did anyway, because she wanted a picture of Patrick Stewart acting and she didn’t give a fuck if there was rule against it. This of course Is not an isolated incident, because we have a rule about it in curtain speeches. That means, people bringing cameras that were nothing else but cameras was a big enough problem, there’s a rule about it. Which brings me to-

Curtain Speech In Vain

Curtain Speeches, the necessary evil. Often times an unwanted 15 minute live commercial from the Artistic Director or Development Director, going on about subscribing, the theater’s mission statement, and how you can donate (Here’s a secret: the very people you’re trying to reach would really just like to watch the fucking play already), but at its core the curtain speech we all get at the top of the show is the same, and starts with “Turn Off Your Cell Phones”. It also usually includes “Don’t take pictures”. Just so you know, my HM curtain speech is “Best Speech” in three counties and YET, there’s always someone who doesn’t follow it. Did he hear the speech? He did. Was the HM not clear? He was. Is it the patron’s first time here? No, his wife is a subscriber. The fact is, he knows the rules, and he’s not a result of timid curtain speeches or inept ushers or the downfall of western theatre etiquette. He just doesn’t give a fuck. His phone being on is more important (which I suppose it could be if you’re a doctor or have a babysitter who drinks). Taking a cool picture he’s not supposed to take is half the fun. Sneaking some video and posting it on the internet is what life is all about and those rules aren’t THAT important right? Is it that big a deal? Well, we all know one dude who thinks it isn’t…

The Guy in The News

Nick Silvestri is a 19 year-old lacrosse player and junior college student from Long Island. Every year, his family gets together and they see a few shows in New York. While he describes himself as “Not a play guy” he still attends at least once a year. This makes the Silvestri Family the bread and butter of commercial theatre: the casual theatre goer. The Silvestris had a lovely time at a restaurant not far from the theater. At the restaurant, they all had a few too many drinks, including Nick. Now, we can assume that Mrs. Silvestri is well aware of the alcohol laws in the country, prohibiting 19 year olds from drinking. Hell, the restaurant could have gotten in huge trouble for it. Was his mother not aware of the laws? She was. Is she a bad Mother? Of course not. She just didn’t give a fuck. When Nick tried plugging his phone into the USB port of the TV at the restaurant, he “Got yelled at by the manager”. Was Nick raised badly, and never taught to ask first? Assumedly not. Shit, that should have been a big sign to everyone in the group. “Uh hey, you might wanna get your drunk teenager under control”, but it didn’t happen. Because they didn’t give a fuck. This all leads up to the Don’t Give A Fuckery of the century, when he climbed up on stage before a performance of “Hand To God” and plugged in his cell phone, into a fake outlet. Now, for the sake of this article, let’s put away the tin foil hats and assume this was real and not a brilliant marketing ploy. Nick is not a first time patron, he knows the rules. He had a few drinks, “Girls kept calling” and his phone was dying. As they sat down in their orchestra seats (which by the way, are real fucking expensive, this bring us back to “Bread and Butter”), he saw the plug and in his words, “Ran for it”. He just figured “It wasn’t a big deal”. He only made a big public apology after folks tracked him down on Twitter and Facebook and savaged him. In the end Nick knew what he was doing, he just didn’t give a fuck. He wanted something, so he went for it. This embodies the privilege that these trouble making patrons all display. A notion that if they want something that they think is reasonable, they should have it. As Nick said to the wide eyed ushers, “What’s the problem buddy?”

What Do You Mean “No”?

If you’ve ever worked in customer service, you know this face. The face someone makes when they are told “no.” It’s almost dumbfounding. The patron comes ten minutes late and asks if they can get a drink and go to the bathroom before they go in. You say no because it’s your one late seating cue and you need to get them in now. But they don’t get it: “I asked, that’s all I’m supposed to do right?” The thing that unites all these people who make us crazy with their behavior is simply privilege. The notion that someone wanted something, they saw what they wanted, so they took it, because that’s what it’s there for right? The notion that rules are just for suckers who don’t go for the brass ring. The idea that every rule is negotiable, you just gotta ask nice. I can basically spot this patron a mile away, they put a hand on my shoulder and say “Hey Buddy” or “Hey Boss” and then ask to break a rule. They explain why this rule should not apply to them and when you disagree, they just don’t understand. Now I’m not being a dick here, I have busted ass for patrons whenever I can, but when there’s something I can’t do, I’m direct about it. And even then, sometimes the patron does it anyway. Not because you didn’t explain the rule clearly, not because they’ve never seen theatre, it’s because they didn’t give a fuck, they wanted what they wanted, and they’ll be damned if some dickhead in a sweater and nametag who would have to work a year to make what he makes in a day tells them no. For some, a feeling of entitlement beyond seeing the play often accompanies a $150 theatre ticket.

#NotAllPatrons

So here’s where I backtrack a little. Because I don’t think these stories are examples of the downfall of society. I don’t think we need to start hanging up “No Assholes” signs at the lobby (they wouldn’t read it anyway). My point here is this: calm the fuck down. Unruly patrons who only care about themselves are not a new thing. We just have phones to record them now. 98% of patrons I meet are swell people. They’re happy to be there and understand the rules and the behavioral expectations we have of them. And these expectations are not evidence of theatre being a stodgy, old fashioned art form that needs to loosen up. It’s live theatre god dammit, the people entertaining you are real, and are subject to distraction. When a patron pulls out a phone in the front row, it’s offensive, because we know they know the rules, they just don’t give a fuck. It’s offensive to audience members who wanted to see a play and not sports scores from the row in front of them. It is the central idea of the Social Contract: we all behave a certain way for the benefit of everybody else in the room. So while we chastise the 2% of theatre patrons who make us crazy and make us think that accessible theatre is just letting in the riff-raff, (I’d like to note that sometimes disruptions and riff-raff actually have their place, I mean hey, “Hand to God” has gotten huge publicity for it) let’s also remember the other 98% who didn’t give you trouble at all. The Patrick Stewart Fan, Nick Silvestri, and every patron who ignores no re-entry policies all share a “Don’t give a fuck” connection. They knew the rules but a sense of privilege and entitlement led them to ignore it. And they’re never going away, but take heart in the notion that they are a minority. They are targets for shaming and without them we wouldn’t have living examples of what NOT to do. Obviously it’s still a problem, but let’s all agree on the exact problem. This is not solved by tweet seats, or cell phone signal jammers in the theater, or ushers carrying big tacky signs pre-show that say “Turn off your cell phone”. Respecting the human beings performing a play for you is not some stodgy, old fashioned rule. While American Theatre has issues it really needs to catch up on (Women outnumber men in theatre classes almost regularly and yet, we’re still doing 1776) Privilege is a larger cultural problem, and until a smart, effective way to deal with it presents itself, shame them, record them misbehaving, and post it on YouTube, let the fear of public embarrassment override their “I want what I want when I want it” attitude. People are most likely to be an asshole when they feel justified and think they can get away with it. Does that sound insensitive and counterproductive? Probably, but hey, I don’t give a fuck.

Anthony R Miller is a doer of many things, read about them at www.awesometheatre.org

The Five: Cranky Patron Breakdown

Anthony R. Miller checks in with a list of his favorite cranky theatre patrons.

Over the years, some of my less glamourous theatre jobs have put me on the front lines of Patron Interaction. So you deal with all kinds of patrons some nice, some not so much, some are great, some are difficult, some are excited to be there, some are shocked you aren’t throwing him a parade for simply being there. While the majority of patrons I’ve worked with have been just swell, there’s always a few cranky ones. And of course it’s job one to turn those cranky patrons into happy ones. But sometimes there’s just no winning, these are the patrons that make we want to curl into a ball under concession table, or burn my eyes out with a tickets scanner. Here are a few of my favorite examples, five of them to be exact.

The “Totally Oblivious to the Consequences of Being Late” Patron

The one who shows up 7 minutes late and asks if they can use the bathroom and buy a drink before being rushed in, because the show already started, because you’re late. The patron who demands they get to sit in their exact seats even though they’re 15 minutes late and their seat in the middle of a row.

The “I Know Exactly How to Run A Theatre Company” Patron

The one who thinks the artistic director is a blundering jackass. The one who knows exactly what plays you need to be doing. The one who will tell an employee, any employee, and tell them what the company as a whole is doing wrong, how they should be fixing it, and how remarkably stupid every single person working for this company is for not solving this crucial issue.

The “Why Do You Have To Do All These Weird, New Plays?” Patron

The one who has no interest in seeing plays that criticize modern life or remind the audience in any way, the world is a shitty place. The one who doesn’t acknowledge musicals were written after 1970. The one who thinks Tony Kushner can go fuck himself. The one who says “Don’t mess with the Classics”, the one who just saw a really great community theatre production of The Odd Couple: “those guys were just terrific, you should do something like that.”

The “I Just Need To Yell At You, There’s No Way You Can Actually Help Me” Patron

The one who rains shit on you for things beyond your control. They haven’t seen the second act of a play in years. No matter what you do, they will be unhappy. Even though the ticket they’ve had for weeks says 7pm they COULD SWEAR it was at 8. They make demands of you like you have any actual power. The one whose seats got screwed up two years ago and even though it was kind of their fault, they’re still pretty pissed and just wanted to remind you. It’s as if they can’t wait to storm out and call you an idiot under their breath.

The “What do You Mean, ‘No’?” Patron

The one who almost seems stunned you didn’t give them what they wanted. The one knows they’re not allowed to, but asks anyway. The one who, in their minds, is the exception. They couldn’t read a “No re-entry” sign to save their life: “Signs just say you can’t do stuff, why would I look at that?”. They have been subscribing for 20 years and still pretend they don’t know about the “No food in the theater” policy.

Anthony R Miller does a lot of things, keep up with many of them at www.awesometheatre.org.

The Five: Sorry, No Late Seating

Anthony R. Miller checks in to complain about something no one can seem to agree on, including him.

I have a lot of jobs, one of them happens to be House Managing. If there is one thing everyone who House Manages, produces, or works box office has to deal with it is late seating. This awkward flashlight shuffle, otherwise known as the art of getting people into the show, after it has started, is one of the hardest parts of the job. For shows that have a “no late seating” policy, that means turning those people away. They ARE late after all. But is that at all a good idea? Should live theatre always do late seating? When I think about it, it becomes a little argument in my head; I kind of see it both ways – or maybe 5:

Everything starts late

Movies start late, concerts start late, if you want people to show up to your party at ten, you say it starts at nine. Sporting events almost always start on time (especially televised ones). But even then, if you’re late, you get to go to your seat eventually. When I ran poetry events at bars, it was just known you would start ten minutes late. Theatre is unique in that there is not a universally accepted buffer.

But, Theatre is different

Not every theater has the ability to sneak people in; sometimes they have to walk right on stage to get to seats, and can’t possibly go their assigned places without walking on people. Perhaps there are no empty seats because of walk-ups and ushers, or the play is really quiet and anything would be a huge disruption. Tiptoes can feel like an elephant stampede at the wrong emotional plateau. There is just no simple way to late seat people without being disruptive to SOMEBODY. So surely there has to be some instances when late seating is a no-go.

Don’t we want people to see theatre?

I hate not being able to late seat people, even if their excuse sucks. I want them to see the play. How does turning people away make someone want to see more theatre? Not everyone who is late simply lacks urgency. Shit, in fact, does happen. Some people get stuck in parking Narnia, stuck on public transportation, stuck in traffic, stuck in the bathroom line, box office, or stuck on the phone with a needy aunt. But no matter the situation, they are here to see this show; don’t we want to accommodate that if only to encourage them to come back? Isn’t a first time theater goer more likely to be late? When I work a show that is very popular, there are a lot more late people. Folks that don’t see much, don’t think showing up 5 minutes before curtain is a big deal. So if these part-time or first time theatre goers are turned away for being 20 min late, even though it’s ridiculous they’re so late, do we really accomplish anything by not seating them?

Oh for God’s sake, just show up on time.

Starting the show on time is like a game for me. Anything past 8:03 feels like a failure. I like making stage managers happy; they are notoriously hard to please; besides patrons have thanked me for starting the show on time. There’s a principal to it, starting when you say you’re going to start shows professionalism. If people know you’re going to start late, they just show up later right? WHY CAN’T EVERYONE SHOW UP 30 MINUTES EARLY? I’ve been yelled at by patrons who were fifteen minutes late, when they found out they wouldn’t get their actual seats, (Which to be fair were expensive.) go to the bathroom, and get a drink before I sat them. Sometimes people show up at 7:30 thinking the show was at 8, except it was at 7, their ticket said so. And I always try to seat them, but sometimes I can’t for whatever reason. It’s just not always possible. Did you know there are union rules for starting within a certain amount of time? There are. Oftentimes tickets are released if not claimed by show time. And dangit, when you start late, you end late. This can be a big problem when your show is 3 hours long!

The Happy Medium

Obviously, I’m being a bit contradictory here. As I said before, I see it both ways. If you start on time you need to accept some people don’t expect you to, and even though they’re the late ones, not accommodating them doesn’t help anyone. No one walks away feeling good. It’s about being welcoming; there aren’t a lot of things you get turned away for being late to. At the same time, theatre is different, there is no pause button. It’s a live real time experience. But then again, it comes back to that word: Welcoming. People who know to get there early and how long it takes to get to your seat, see theatre on a regular basis. The people who don’t are either A) Just late for everything and can’t help it, or B) Not a regular theatre goer, you know, the kind of patron we are all after: new ones. It cannot be argued that a casual theatre goer who shows up late and still gets in is more likely to go again, because he had a good experience getting a finger wag and a lobby seat. Of course it’s not that easy, theatre producers might have to take logistics into account as often as their artist’s and designer’s visions. You have to make sure there are easily accessible seats available, there has to be a time during the performance that it’s not a huge disturbance, and maybe when you’re considering layout, you use back entry ways for, you know, entering, and not loading giant scenic elements in the first 10 minutes of an act. We should consider these things, right? Or am I just allowing one more standard to crumble, am I contributing to the downfall of society, or am I just trying to be nice? I’m so confused. Now please turn off your cell phones, and enjoy the show. Anthony out!

Anthony R. Miller is a Writer, Producer, Director and a bunch of other things. Keep up with his projects at awesometheatre.org