Patti LuPone didn’t start the movement of theater artists fighting intrusive technology and rude audience behavior — though she did bring Gypsy to a halt over someone taking illegal cellphone pictures during her show-stopping Rose’s Turn in 2009.
But the Tony Award winner is, as the theater world discovered in July, dispirited about the effect that ubiquitous cell phones and self-centered (or just plain ignorant) theatergoers are having on performers and audiences alike. During a performance of Douglas Carter Beane’s Shows for Days at Lincoln Center, LuPone noticed a woman in the second row texting repeatedly throughout the show. At the end of the show, LuPone walked by the bored patron, swiped the phone and carried it with her backstage. As revenge, it was short and sweet (the phone was returned), but revenge it was.
LuPone is certainly not alone in trying to perform while the audience does things inattentive or not permitted. Benedict Cumberbatch, who has already suffered the slings and arrows of several critics reviewing his first preview performance in Hamlet at London’s Barbican Theatre (not cool), has been so distressed/distracted by audience members acting like cellphone paparrazi that he stood outside the stage door asking fans to help him stop the insanity.
And you may have read about Nick Silvestri, a Long Island guy who thought his cellphone could use a charge before a performance of the Broadway show Hand to God. So he marched up onto the set and tried to plug it into a fake outlet, later claiming he didn’t know any better.
If you’ve been to theater (or opera or concerts or almost any live event) in South Florida, you’ve seen it all. Hordes of latecomers who think nothing of waltzing in, drinks in hand, a half-hour or even an hour late, crawling over seated (and now distracted) patrons to get to their assigned seats. People eat, talk to each other, answer their phones, text, take pictures, exit and return, get tanked, holler at the actors. All as if they’re sitting at home in front of a monster-size TV.
Critics see a lot of this bad behavior since we’re so often part of an audience. But the pros — actors, directors, playwrights, designers, stage managers — have seen it all. We reached out to some of South Florida’s theater artists to ask if they had any war stories they’d be willing to share. Why yes, they do.
Elizabeth Dimon, Carbonell Award-winning actress: “I’ve had an audience member tell me to move while I was in the middle of the play because she couldn’t see whatever she wanted to see, which obviously was not me. I’ve seen couples making out, hands down the guy’s pants, while we are acting away on stage. During the most recent Summer Shorts, three very elderly people had a cellphone go off repeatedly, and it appeared that they didn’t know how to turn it off; I almost stopped the show to go over to show them. Another patron not only answered a ringing phone and proceeded to talk on it but went through a curtain backstage. People eat full lunches on their laps during a show, complete with potato chips. But my personal favorite is when they take their shoes off in the front row, as if they are invisible.”
David Arisco, artistic director, Actors’ Playhouse: “During our summer show Unnecessary Farce, a girl came in on a student ticket and asked if she could type on her laptop during the show so she could do her report for class. At intermission, she asked if she could plug her cellphone into the [fake] outlet where the VCR was plugged in on the set. Both times, she was baffled about why she was told she couldn’t do that. Because the front row in the upstairs theater is so close to the stage, people set drinks and programs on the stage or put their feet up. We’re glad you feel comfortable in our theater, but this isn’t your living room.”
Nicole Stodard, artistic director, Thinking Cap Theatre: “We once had an audience member very clearly under the influence of something step right onto the stage and join the cast during a dance interlude. This was not an audience interaction show! And we have had a few patrons try to negotiate the cost of concessions, like they are at a yard sale or flea market.”
Antonio Amadeo, Carbonell Award-winning actor: “The most recent cellphone nightmare experience I had was the worst. I was performing in Michael McKeever’s Daniel’s Husband [an Island City Stage premiere at Empire Stage], and a patron in the front row spent the entire show constantly picking up his phone to text and browse. He was leaning back in his chair and had his legs stretched clear into the playing space ... because it is so intimate, anything can be a huge distraction. In the middle of a particularly challenging scene with Laura Turnbull ... I could see and feel this man pulling out his phone and texting away like a little monkey. His face kept lighting up as he turned his phone on, then off, then on, then off. His legs were lit by the stage lights, in my line of sight. He would put his phone down on the audience riser next to him, then pick it up to text, then put it back down again. The scene was intense and very emotional, so the audience was rapt, very still and engaged. Except for this man. Moving and texting and glowing and texting. It was terrible.”
John Manzelli, artistic director, City Theatre: “During Summer Shorts, a phone rang for about 30 seconds before going to voicemail, not once but three times. Finally, a man sitting in the third row center realized that it was his phone making everyone upset. Panicked, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the ringing phone. Surely he was going to turn it off. But no. He answered it: ‘Hello. ... Hey, yeah. How are you? [He said this in full voice, loud enough so he could hear himself over the actors 20 feet from him.] I’m at a show. At the Arsht Center! The Arsht Center! Downtown! Yeah, no, it’s good! I don’t know what it’s called, Shorts something? We’ll probably be another hour or so (loud laugh). Oh, hey, I should probably get off the phone, people are shooshing me! Shooshing me! OK. I’ll call you when we leave. No problem. Yeah, let’s get together. Talk to you soon. Are you going be home around 10? 10! 10 o’clock! Sorry, the reception isn’t very good in here. OK, call you later.’”
Andy Rogow, artistic director, Island City Stage: “During the first scene of The Pride, after 10 minutes or so, all of a sudden this woman who is sitting in the middle of the second row decides to get up. Michael McKeever, Bruce Linser and Faiza Cherie are all on stage, and they’re thinking she must be going to the bathroom. The whole audience is watching her now instead of the play. Instead, she walks right on stage in front of Michael, who is in the middle of a monologue and is literally a foot from the seats in the front row, and takes an empty seat there ... it’s not like you can see or hear so much better in the front row than you can from the second row. For the life of me I still can’t imagine what she was thinking.”
Michael McKeever, Carbonell-winning actor and playwright: “A few years back, in one of the smaller theaters that is now sadly gone, I was doing an intense drama, a two-person show, with David Perez-Ribada. At one point, I was alone onstage (and keep in mind, this is a tiny stage) giving this quiet, heartfelt, beautifully written monologue. And a woman in the front row, sitting not two feet away from me, says in full voice to the person sitting next to her, ‘I liked him better when he was doing comedy.’ Yep. That’s one that sticks with you.”
William Hayes, artistic director, Palm Beach Dramaworks: “I have very strong and passionate feelings about this age of electronics and social media. ... The first time I confronted this in a big way was during our production of A Moon for the Misbegotten at our old intimate studio theater. During a pivotal scene, when Todd Allen Durkin was delivering a gut-wrenching monologue, a woman in the audience answered her phone and engaged in a full (loud) conversation. I jumped up, tapped her on the shoulder, and said, ‘Get into the lobby immediately.’ She did. I followed her. Then, with my finger pointing in her face, I [said] that since she was so inconsiderate to my actors and the entire audience, she was banned from my theater ... If someone is so important that they can’t be away from their cellphone for two hours, then they should not go to the theater. They should stay wherever they stay to do all that other important stuff. But for the rest of us, what’s most important is to sit in that audience and have the experience that we are entitled to.”
Niki Fridh, actress: “When I was working at Actor’s Playhouse, even though Carl the stage manager had made an announcement before the show about keeping feet off the stage, we still had a patron in the very first row not only put her feet on the stage like it was her own personal ottoman but also remove her shoes to make sure she was extra comfy. So for the entire performance there was a not-so-lovely pair of feet propped up and lit quite well for all to see.”
Nicholas Richberg, Carbonell Award-winning actor: “At Zoetic Stage, we have the challenge of being in a small space [the Carnival Studio Theater at the Arsht Center] that we often configure differently. This puts the audience up close and personal with the actors, for better or worse. Early on, food was allowed in the theater. Audience members were particularly fond of delicious kettle corn packaged in what might be the noisiest cellophane wrapping ever created. The food ended when, during Moscow, a woman seated in the first row proceeded to lay out a full picnic: turkey wrap, chips, cookies and a soda. Our shows average 90 minutes: How hungry were you when you arrived that nuts won’t tide you over? Even allowing drinks in the theater poses a challenge, as audience members frequently rattle their ice looking for that last drop of booze. I mean we get it, our seats are kind of hard, and our stairs are kind of loud even when you tiptoe, but our plays are usually short and pretty darn entertaining. So sit tight, put your phone down, and we promise no one’s bladder will burst, no one will die of hunger, and if any catastrophic world events occur during the performance, we’ll probably stop the show and let you know.”
Matt Stabile, actor and teacher: “These audience members doing this kind of stuff might actually be a good sign for us. The majority of these people are likely experiencing theater for the first time, hence their behavior. They are accustomed to movies and theme park-style shows, so it may be that theater etiquette just isn’t a part of the culture. But they are coming to the theater. And that is what we really want ... I see these Facebook rants about audience behavior and think, ‘Well, you’re just preaching to the choir. Everyone reading this knows that is unacceptable behavior. And the person you are trying to shame is never going to read your post.’ I always remember that theaters can be a scary place for people who have never been. Although I want the ‘bad behavior’ to stop, the last thing I want to do is shame anyone and have them not return. The audience is the most essential part of what we do, not just for the money, but for the art itself. I’ve always believed that the art is in the processing of the piece, not just the creation of it. We can’t just do this thing for each other. We have to keep bringing in people — and teaching them their responsibilities to the art.”