Wednesday, October 22, 2014

More Theatrical Griping

... yes, here it comes.

I recently read an article by Mark Shenton of The Stage (read it here) that discussed the growing lack of theatre etiquette. And though I didn't mention it specifically in my previous theatrically themed post, I too have been frustrated with this trend and gobsmacked at the audacity of people around me at the theatre recently.

For me it all really started a few years ago when I went to see the then new production Dirty Dancing. Though I had many issues with the adaptation and the translation of the much loved film for stage that I would have preferred to be thinking about - since this was my first time seeing the new show - I was overwhelmed with the desire to murder 85% of the audience instead.

Now, that show was pitched at hen parties and groups of women that were out for a girls' night, so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. That also allowed me at the time to dismiss the actions that occurred as a very show specific phenomenon. The sheer lack of respect for the performers, the show, and the rest of the audience appalled me. This was the first time that I had been to the theatre and actually had people around me catcalling during a serious and touching scene, purely because the lead actor took off his shirt. There were wolf whistles, people singing along (badly), and a general hum of conversation throughout.

I will admit that experience was somewhat of an extreme. But I have also been in a theatre where the child behind me kicked my seat for the entirety of the first act, and when I turned around to politely ask the child not to, was given the dirtiest look by the mother. Most recently, a woman in front of me pulled her phone out in the middle of the first act of a show and started replying to texts and emails - I could see her typing "I am at the theatre" and thought that it would be a one off message that must have been to someone very important, like the Queen or her on-call plastic surgeon, but no... she then opened up the next message and started to write a reply. With my light tap on her shoulder, she did - to give her credit - pull the phone flat to her chest and put it away. But she did not even acknowledge me at that point, at the interval, or after the show. If I had not touched her on the shoulder and brought her back to the obviously easy to forget reality that she was staring at a light source in a darkened room whilst hard working performers were trying to draw the people around her into another time and place, she may well have continued indefinitely.

As a young foreigner on my first trips over the pond (many, many years ago), I was astounded at my first trips to London theatre. The venues were grander than anything I had seen and the people more relaxed and comfortable there than I had ever imagined. The dress code was more casual, and frankly, it took me a long time to be comfortable with the fact that ice cream was available to be eaten in your seat! What crazy madness was this? Something that could make a mess of the seats and floor was actively encouraged? Brits were obviously much more conscientious and responsible than those of us in the colonies. We were never even allowed to take drinks in to an auditorium. I was awed by the way that theatre fit into this culture so intrinsically and wanted to be a part of that.

But that same relaxed atmosphere that made me love London and its people for their easy acceptance of theatre as a regular way of life seems to have slipped too far. I had assumed that the reason that ice creams and drinks were allowed in the theatres was because people were respectful enough not to make a mess. I thought that the walk in off the street dress code was showing how much a part of every day life the theatre was here. (Friends here as tourists have asked me what they needed to wear if they were off to the theatre - so the high number of tourists in audiences cannot entirely be blamed for a lowered dress code.) And to some extent I was right. But that relaxed atmosphere has also led to the complete lack of respect that some theatre patrons now show for the art form they are attending.

Some of it probably comes from our habit of texting or playing around with a computer whilst watching a movie at home, or the ego-centric "no one will notice if I just break this little rule" mentality that is  oddly celebrated in today's celebrities and media. But no matter where it is starting, it is hurting the theatre experience for everyone.

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