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.
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.
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