Here are two of the most disobeyed instructions given out at the theater. “Please turn off all cellphones,” and “Unwrap your candies now.”
Sometimes they are accompanied with a gentle reminder that this is in consideration of the performers on stage in front of you, and your fellow theatergoers.
But really at this stage, as someone who goes to the theater a fair amount, I say let’s go full shame and screw the invitation to basic decency. Just let the recorded message shame the uncouth and tell them that they are thoughtless, inconsiderate idiots if they choose to ignore it. (Nathan Lane should do the voice-over.)
If you go to the theater a lot, you know that Kanye West, shamed on Twitter by Cher Show star Jarrod Spector for using his cellphone on the opening night of that cacophonous and colorful show, is far from alone.
Every night there is bad and thoughtless behavior conducted by people who may have spent hundreds of dollars on theater tickets yet seemingly have no idea how to behave in an actual theater. Why should you check that your phone is off, because, gee, that would be way too much trouble. Puleeze, that recorded announcement doesn’t refer to you! An hour later, that ringing sound: Oh, sorry everyone, is that me? Yes, it’s you! Look, you're in public at the theater! Who knew!
Or: You know what, I've got a lot going on, people. I can multi-task Cher and sequins and urgent texting!
As for West, he apologized, and said his transgression had been because the show was so good.
The degradation of theater etiquette is an old bugbear of mine, because it keeps getting worse; and Kim Kardashian West’s “hey, thanks, we really enjoyed ourselves at the Cher show” morning-after tweet doesn’t make it better.
Here’s the one thing to make everything better, and this is for everyone going to a cinema and theater to watch something alongside other humans: Shut up.
Really, it’s that simple. You are in a place to watch something around other people. You are not, as many people seem to be under the misleading impression that they are, at home on the couch. To the couple at Network behind me last week who at certain plot points asked at normal speaking volume (and not even an attempt at a whisper), “What do you think she’s doing?” or “OK, that’s pretty cool, right?”—just save it till you leave the damn theater.
If you have stuff happening in your life which you cannot take time away from, which demands the attention of a phone that is on all the time, then on that day or night don’t try and double-up with the kind of time that a theater show demands. Choose another time, another show. We will all understand your decision.
The most depressing thing about theater noise, quite besides the annoyance of sitting beside or near its practitioners, is that it shows how bad we have become at conducting the act of being together.
Manners are not just individual, they are collective. Going to a theater where thoughtlessness is so blithely practiced is a sad reminder how we have forgotten, or are forgetting, to occupy collective spaces in a civilized fashion. Theater noise-makers cut across all boundaries of class and age; what they share is a selfishness, of which using a mobile phone is the most visible and rankling example.
Here’s the thing. You are not at home. There are people sitting next to you. There are actors, like Bryan Cranston, trying to do their job a few feet from you. Yes, they are on a set, and yes the stage looks like a fictional world. But actually, we are all there together, and the social contract here is that you keep your mouth shut, and let the actors act. They can hear you. We can hear you.
Sure, laugh if you need to laugh (but not as if you’ve been given a volume-enhancing drug); express surprise at a plot twist (a thoughtful “whoo” will do). Clap if you must, but not as if you're impersonating thunder claps. Mostly, just sit there and watch. That's all you have to do.
When Spector called out West on Twitter, it was to remind him that there were people doing their job in front of him. In this, those in the audience keen to watch theater are at one with the actors trying to perform it.
The sight of a turned-on cellphone and a face buried in it is insulting and rude, and especially from another artist who knows all too well about people using cellphones around him when they shouldn’t.
Have some respect for the craft, but also have some respect for people around you. A cellphone has a bright light which distracts everyone in its near-radius in a dark theater, even when the show is as loud and bright as The Cher Show.
Spector’s co-star, Stephanie J. Block, has already admonished other transgressing audience members (off mic, which shows what a decent human she is). But it’s still a Wild West out in the orchestra and mezzanine. As well as the talking, texting, and tapping, there are the seat-jammers; those people who again, assuming they are at home, kick and push at the seat in front of them. Not all these people have the excuse of tallness (recommendation: book an aisle seat), some are merely thoughtless.
And the same goes for the bag-fiddlers. The bag-fiddlers have zipped-up handbags. The bag-fiddlers spend the performance checking their tissues, lip balm, money, cards, and whatever else is in their portable, bottomless caverns just as they would wish, and then proceed to unzip and rezip as Glenda Jackson is speaking intensely about mortality and regret right in front of them.
Which brings us to the unwrapping of candies and chips. Theaters, instead of issuing an instruction which people wantonly flout, here's a suggestion: Why not stop selling anything that makes a crinkly, bag-opening, scrunching sound? Find another way to make money, or put these candies in ready-made cups.
The people opening these bags, such as the man with his son at The Band’s Visit, invariably choose the worst moment to reach for the Twizzlers and Pringles. Yes, it will be during the most tender declaration of love. RIIIPPPPP that bag, and SCRUNNCH it.
Or the lady sitting next to me who, as Philip Seymour Hoffman launched into Willy Loman’s most searing speech, decided it was the best moment for her to launch into an equally intense and focused consumption of a bag of pretzels.
The ripping of bags, the noise of plastic and paper being crinkled by hands, sounds volcanic enough, but then comes the chewing and crunching of the food. The spilled drinks. The retrieval of dropped water bottles and sippy cups.
Oh, and the programs. Listen, put the programs down. Keep them in reach, but your job is to look at the stage. Programs in idle hands become yet another growling, interrupting audible missile.
And yes, that person on stage is in your favorite TV show. You may be desperate to share this information with your theater buddy. That star may be why you bought the ticket. But when they appear, and when they are on stage, there is no need to talk to your companion about them, their work, why you love them. And the same goes for surprise plot developments, or characters misbehaving. Imbibe the shock of the stage behavior, don’t start an urgent debate about it. Save your surprise for later!
Kanye West’s transgression isn’t new, and it isn’t the worst thing that happens in the theater these days. But what he, and others like him, are missing is what is right in front of him. Art. Culture. Effort. People working hard to do precisely what a telephone set to ‘on’ cannot do, which is to take you somewhere else, to force you to be somewhere else, and to think about something else apart from yourself.
Is noise ever acceptable in a theater? Well, if there is an emergency of any kind, of course. Otherwise, I can think of only once. At Bruce Springsteen’s wonderful Broadway show, two women sat behind me, softly and unobtrusively singing along to what he sang. It was beautiful. But it should be a one-off, as Kanye West hopefully now knows.
The golden rule for us all at the theater: sit down, watch, and shush.