by Philip Kennicott
[On 11 February 2014, I posted an article by ROT contributor Kirk Woodward called “Reflections On Theater Etiquette” in which my friend discussed some of the ways that performers should behave while they’re working. On 3 May 2015, the Washington Post ran a collection of articles by arts journalists on proper behavior by patrons in public spaces, including the theater. I’m posting the introductory article by Philip Kennicott and the theater article by Nelson Pressley as a sort of delayed companion to Kirk’s piece. The articles originally ran in the “Arts & Style” section of the Washington Post.]
“Change in etiquette usually comes slowly, just as changes come slowly in the dictionary,” Amy Vanderbilt wrote in her book on manners, published more than half a century ago. Vanderbilt was wise not to qualify her statement. Change usually comes slowly. But look at the etiquette of public space today, and one finds everywhere great and rapid change.
Technology has scrambled the lines between public and private. Cellphones make our most intimate conversations available to anyone within earshot, while headphones create zones of pure solitude even in the midst of the liveliest crowd. Smartphones and tablets allow us to spend time with art without ever leaving the office, while sophisticated new robots enable the house-bound to participate in live events remotely. Last year, the National Symphony Orchestra invited a Beam “telepresence robot” into a side box, so that a disabled man in California could see, hear and interact with the musicians at a performance.
The democratization of art and the desire to make it more accessible also has fundamentally changed how we expect people to behave in social spaces once governed by sometimes elaborate rules. The nature of those rules — are they simply the arbitrary residue of class and snobbery, or are they pragmatic guidelines for ensuring everyone can hear, see and enjoy the experience? — continue unabated, but with a twist.
Perhaps we are entering a new age of radicalism individualism, in which the very idea of enjoying public space together is giving way to something more anarchic and carnivalesque. Silence was once prized as a mark of success in many public spaces, including libraries, museums and concert halls; the vibrancy of many of those spaces, today, is measured by noise, hubbub and laughter.
And yet etiquette also is remarkably resilient, reforming in new ways, often spontaneously. Taking a selfie in a museum may be disruptive to others, and antithetical to the experience of art, yet given the option, most people will avoid walking through the line of sight and ruining someone else’s photograph. If the power goes off in a nightclub, it’s astonishing how quickly audiences will tune in and scale down their conversations to hear the unamplified music. The silence in the Quiet Car on Amtrak is more strictly governed by ordinary passengers than the stereotypical librarian of old who rode herd on unruly students a century ago.
The two most significant forces shaping our planet today — rapid urbanization and the wholesale destruction of our environment — will only increase the rate of change in etiquette. For one thing is certain: We will live in more crowded spaces, and we will increasingly live indoors, cocooned in climate-controlled zones with a few billion of our closest friends. If etiquette is simply an elaboration of the Golden Rule, or Kant’s categorical imperative — always act in such a way that you’d be happy to have everyone do as you do — then it is certain to undergo as profound and as rapid a change as we have ever experienced.
The critics of The Washington Post spend much of their lives in theaters, museums, restaurants and nightclubs, but also on buses and trains, in airports and libraries, and all the myriad public spaces of ordinary life. What follows is a report from the field, an attempt to register the changes — or not — in etiquette from a cross section of the social world. Some have chosen to codify their own rules for an evolving social realm; others have taken a more sociological look at the forces underlying old arguments about rules and manners. Yet others have wrestled with their own internal conflicts about etiquette, about the “should” and “how” of passing down rules to new audiences.
And our conclusions? None at all. But a few themes emerge. Dance critic Sarah Kaufman sees a correlation between the intensity — and rarity — of the artistic experience and collective good behavior. Dance can’t be reproduced at home on the stereo or television, so when we encounter it in the flesh, we are completely absorbed. Film critic Ann Hornaday surveys a very different medium, where audiences often forget that they aren’t in their own living room. She also points out something fundamental about etiquette: We are better at practicing it than enforcing it, and confrontation is almost always counterproductive.
Food critic Tom Sietsema regularly patrols the unruly world of eating in public, where people can be astonishingly thoughtless. Among his observations is a basic insight about character, and behavior: “Think good thoughts,” he says. Because, in the end, empathy and a blithe spirit will always yield a better experience for everyone. Classical music critic Anne Midgette wrestles with her feelings about rules, in an environment that often feels to outsiders horribly rule-bound. There are no easy answers, she says, because the passionate desire to share music with others often leads music lovers to “lapse into a rhetoric that comes off as at once defensive and bossy.”
Theater critic Nelson Pressley provides a history lesson in rowdy behavior, and insight into what it’s like on the other side of the proscenium, where actors have their own passionate feelings about audience misbehavior. Pop music critic Chris Richards offers rules for the world of amplified music, crowded clubs and a naturally more freewheeling environment. But he sees the individual clubgoer just as much a part of a collective experience as anyone at the symphony hall. “Is your behavior helping the collective energy flow more freely, or is it clogging things up?” And thus we see the basic impulse to keep etiquette alive and well in an arena designed to be antipodal to the formal, hierarchical experience of art.
In the end, that is the fundamental paradox of art and public space: We go there both to be free and to submit (through the embodiment of experience in art) to the consciousness of others; to find and lose ourselves; to be out in the world yet to escape the crushing banality of so much of the culture we have created. Art often seems incidental to the larger world of commerce, politics and celebrity, but it teaches us the most essential lesson of living well together, how to modulate our own ego and desires in the face of something larger, more important and lasting.
“THE SHOW MUST GO ON, CIVILLY”
by Nelson Pressley
Our era’s curse is the cellphone, but theaters have a long tradition as rowdy places. In 17th-century France, Molière had to tolerate cocky, talkative VIPs who insisted on sitting on the stage. That was common in London, too.
Food, especially fruits and nuts, used to be sold inside theaters, which meant audiences had something to throw at the stage whenever they felt like expressing a bit of high-velocity criticism.
And prostitutes! Let’s not forget the working women who used to drum up business in the stalls and galleries.
“Fifteen years ago our theaters were tumultuous places,” Denis Diderot wrote in 1758, fretting that guards — yes, it came to that — were turning unruly Paris stages into “resorts more peaceful and respectful than our churches.”
Our own mayhem is subtler — except, maybe, when an actor leaps from the stage to attack a heckler, which happened over the summer in California. Santa Clara’s Repertory East Company was performing Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and someone in the audience began making homophobic comments about the repressed character Brick. The actor playing Big Daddy took after the heckler and was fired for it. The performer playing Brick quit in solidarity. The rest of the run was scrapped.
Then there was the notorious 2013 University of Mississippi incident with a largely student audience ridiculing the gay figures of the “The Laramie Project,” which chronicles the 1998 murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. The jeering not only shattered etiquette but also challenged civil rights; the scandal quickly went national, with widespread backing for the actors.
“All of a sudden, there was a sense of empowerment in the cast, where they felt the support of the greater community,” the show’s director told the Jackson Free Press. “The performances were just electric.” Civility won.
“Performance is a time to think inwardly, not a time to share your thoughts aloud,” instructs the etiquette guide posted by the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre, in Indiana, and, for people who have paid good money and invested valuable time only to be irritated by chatterers (let alone snorers), this bedrock principle can’t be restated often enough.
Still, that’s just scratching the surface of potential distractions. The guides alert us:
“Come clean,” advises New York Show Tickets in a note to both the dirty tourist and the Manhattan gym rat. “Try to make time for a shower before arriving at the theater.”
From the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend, Ind.: “Please consider the people that will be seated behind you when choosing whether or not to wear a hat or what hair style you choose.” Also, with alarming grammar: “Take care of personal needs (drinks of water or restroom) because you should not leave your seat until the intermission or until the performance ends.”
Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company teaches audiences, “React to what’s happening on stage.”
They have yet to include this gentle guidance: Please do not throw up on Washington Post critics. (It happened there.)
Surely, everyone knows it’s rude to rattle wrappers during a show, yet a minor Twizzlers incident upstaged Al Pacino during a 2013 New York performance of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” and prompted the breathless headline, “The Great Fight Way: Broadway Audiences Are Behaving Badly, and Someone Is Going to Get Hurt.”
But the particular bane of our age is the cellphone. In April, Madonna reportedly texted through the second act of the hit off-Broadway musical “Hamilton,” prompting the show’s star and writer Lin-Manuel Miranda to ban Madge from backstage. Hugh Jackman stopped one of his 2009 Broadway performances of “A Steady Rain” with Daniel Craig and stood hands on hips as he told an audience member to turn the bloomin’ thing off. Actress Laura Linney has said that casts now discuss ahead of time what to do when the inevitable cellphone incidents occur.
The most sensational option, of course, is to go ballistic, a la Patti LuPone.
“I have to say this: We have forgotten our public manners,” an inflamed LuPone told a crowd after stopping a performance of “Gypsy” to have a picture-taker thrown out. This was in 2009, when LuPone became the poster diva of “Don’t do that! Don’t make me stop this show!” Only months after “Gypsy” closed on Broadway, she interrupted another performance in Las Vegas to cross-examine an audience member using a phone. When the New York Times characterized the star’s behavior as a trifle touchy, LuPone fired back in a letter.
“This has been going on in my career for 30 years since I starred in ‘Evita,’ and, you’re surprised I stop shows now?” she wrote.
Thirty years predates the “smart” phone, which still hasn’t learned modern theater audience etiquette. (“People” appear to be a poor app for that.) That underscores the bigger point: We are an intuitively restless species. In a crowd, someone is always distracted or out of step. Theaters used to be raucous because they were public squares, places to display one’s privileged self sitting on the stage or to shout as you stood in the pit. The distractions are different now because we’ve evolved into electronic palmists anxious to instant-share and nervous about ever disconnecting.
LuPone’s “Gypsy” tirade is a masterpiece of performer’s pique. On YouTube, you can hear LuPone revving into “Rose’s Turn,” her energy in full throttle, when suddenly she shouts the orchestra to a halt. In a voice that could crack an ocean liner’s hull, she roars at a picture-taker in the audience, “How dare you! Who do you think you are? Get them out!”
The cheers are Olympian. The audience is fully behind her. It had to be said.
The irony that LuPone’s righteous tirade is preserved by an illicit recording? Priceless.
[The other opinion pieces on proper behavior in public places were “Poking Holes in Notion of Anything Goes,” a consideration of etiquette in museums by Philip Kennicott, the Post’s art and architecture critic; “Maintaining Sense of Harmony,” a discussion of correct behavior at a pop concert by Chris Richards, pop music review-writer; “A Blockbuster Idea for Citing Infractions,” an article on etiquette at the movies by Ann Hornaday, a Post movie reviewer; “Dining Out with Good Taste,” an examination of good manners in a restaurant by Tom Sietsema, the Post’s restaurant reviewer; “Caught up in the Performance,” an article on proper conduct at a ballet by dance critic Sarah Kaufman; “To Do and Not to Do,” a consideration of what’s proper at a classical music performance by Anne Midgette, the classical music critic for the paper.]