The lights shining down were so bright I was beginning to sweat. I was alone, pouring my heart out on the stage of the University Theater during the annual production of the Vagina Monologues. As my monologue reached its climax and just as I was reaching my epiphany I saw the light… of a cell phone.
A young woman, whose mop of curly blond hair hid her identity from me, was texting in the front row.
I lost my focus. I was pulled out of character.
I pulled it together and continued, but in retrospect I was appalled at the crassness of this person who sat close enough for me to watch them metaphorically slap me across the face with her smart phone.
Most productions have a stage manager, the director or even an actor in character that announces rules and etiquette, such as silencing cell phones and no flash photography. Online Broadway theater outlet nytix.com suggests audience members unwrap cough drops and candies before the show starts, take a shower before attending a show and refrain from giving your own rendition of popular showtunes.
“It's tempting sometimes, we know. But if you want to sing on Broadway, then you're gonna have to audition like those people up onstage did. Your fellow Broadway fans paid the big bucks to hear the professionals flex their vocal muscles, not you. Save your sweet singing for post-show karaoke,” reads rule number eight.
Today, artists are reaching out to include the community, and as live theater becomes more accessible to audiences the rules aren’t as black and white. Audiences at the university are filled with both those who attend many shows and students who decided to take Intro to Acting to kill off their General Education “Expressive Arts” course. For those students and others, this is the first time they have ever attended a live theater production. They are easy to spot. They are the ones in sweatpants.
“The time when people dressed up in their furs, and their pearls, and their tuxes to go see a play, that world just doesn’t exist anymore,” said Erin McDaniel, of UM’s School of Theatre and Dance. “If you come and you’re quiet when you’re supposed to be quiet and you’re attentive, that’s really all we can ask.”
McDaniel has been involved with theater since she was six and has worked as an executive assistant for the School of Theatre and Dance since 2005, a job she said is like being a company manager for a theater except she handles a cast of over 200. While she said she has yet to witness any horror stories herself, the worst have become legends within the department.
Two years ago during a theater-in-the-round performance, where the audience sits on every side of the stage, a graduate student was performing a monologue during the final dress rehearsal when she heard a clicking sound. When she looked, she saw an audience member clipping her fingernails.
“The grad student told me she stopped the show and turned and said ‘when you are finished with your personal hygiene, we’ll start the show again’,” McDaniel said.
She said theater etiquette includes the things you could do while watching something in the comfort of your own home that you should not be doing in public in front of other people, like bringing your own snacks.
“You would not believe. Cokes, milkshakes, sandwiches, random things, not just water or a cookie you get at the concession stand that you are supposed to leave in the lobby,” McDaniel said.
The evolution of cell phones into smart phones has created a huge problem, McDaniel said. Before, when all a phone could do was make and receive calls, cell phone use could be controlled. Now people think that because they aren’t making any noise they aren’t bothering anyone, but McDaniel said it’s just like a flashbulb going off in the audience.
Long-time thespian and School of Theater and Dance publicity coordinator, Theresa Waldorf agrees.
“It’s the worst, newest offense,” she said. “The light is so obvious.”
For Waldorf, her worst moment on stage dealing with etiquette was seeing her teenage son asleep in the front row. She said her friend even had audience members calling out suggestions for making the play more interesting. Her biggest pet peeve as a performer and an audience member is when people bring infants to the theater. She said it hardly ever works out that the baby can last the entire performance without causing a distraction.
She stressed while the actions of inconsiderate theatergoers effects the performers on stage, it’s not just the actors you may be offending, it’s other audience members as well.
“You need to be present to experience that moment, “ she said. “Other people have paid to see the performance and they deserve to have that experience.”
If you ask actors, directors or people behind the scenes, the rules of etiquette boil down to one basic idea: don’t be a jackass.
Actors ask for your attention and since most people have paid to see the show, respect the performers and your fellow audience members. You don’t need to dress up, but dressing nicer shows appreciation for the performers who are putting on a show for you. Don’t talk during the show unless it’s an emergency, use intermissions to discuss why you can’t follow The Cherry Orchard.
I would add, don’t text. And if you are going to be tempted, don’t sit in the front row. Sit in the back where I can’t see you.
This article is part of a partnership between Green Room and Lee Banville's Online Journalism class at the University of Montana.