Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Which Show Am I Paying To See?

And by that, I'm referring basically to two shows:  the one behind the proscenium arch, and increasingly the one in front of it.  And by that, I'm referring to the increasing narcissism of theater audiences, as expressed by their use of that most ubiquitous of modern conveniences, the cell phone.

Lest I leave myself open to a charge of hypocrisy at the start of this post, I'll make it clear that I am not an opponent of cell phones, especially smart phones.  I own one (an iPhone 6), am happy to both have it and use it, and appreciate the role they play in making many aspects of modern life easier and faster.  But one of the most disconcerting things about the way in which cell phones are now used is that, more and more, people use them to have private and often intensely personal conversations in public places, to the detriment of everyone who is attempting to enjoy the experience of being in a public place.

Such as a theater, for example.

Recently, Broadway veteran actress Patti LuPone generated news--and plaudits--for snatching a cell phone from an audience member who had been texting throughout a performance of "Show for Days," in which she is currently appearing at Lincoln Center.  This is not the first time LuPone has dealt with mid-performance cell-phone users, nor is she the only actor who has done battle with them.  Brian Dennehy famously stopped a performance during his run in "Death of a Salesman" on Broadway because of a cell-phone user in the audience.

LuPone's willingness to stand up to cell-phoning in the audience has generated a significant amount of positive publicity for her.  As it turns out, however, not everyone feels that why.  Recently, an article posted on the Internet site The Clyde Fitch Report suggested that the real problem was not with modern audiences, but with modern theater.  The author suggests that theater was more interesting and more vital back in the days when audiences were allowed to be more rambunctious in their interactions with performers.  The audiences, by being allowed to respond more openly, made theater "better" in some sense by providing a form of instant feedback.  Accordingly, if modern plays rose to the challenge of being more interesting than cell-phone callers, the whole problem would just solve itself.


Honestly speaking, I have to wonder if the author if this article, a self-professed "theater historian," has ever had to sit within several seats of someone deciding to usurp a public space to have a private conversation about his/her investments, affairs, colonoscopies and Lord only knows what else.  You could pack the Lunts, Arthur Miller and Rodgers & Hammerstein in a show (with special appearances by Robert Morse, Angela Lansbury, and a Jerome Robbins ballet), and it still wouldn't be impervious to this sort of annoyance.

And, in some sense, that's not even the real point.  When I go to the theater, I am paying $100-plus dollars to experience the work of artists at the top of their respective professions, and to do so in the company of others who share that desire and enjoy sharing it in the company of others.  I am not, repeat NOT, doing it so that I can be an involuntary witness to some self-absorbed cretin using modern technology to give his or her ego a hand job.  Because that's what cell-phone use in public places is all about, increasingly.  Not about a need to respond to unexpected emergencies, and certainly not about giving "feedback" to the artists trying to overlook the rudeness to which their efforts are increasingly being subjected.  It's about narcissism.  It's not about surrendering yourself to a larger experience for a few hours; it's about making yourself bigger than the experience.  Look at me, look at me, I'm making a call at a Broadway show!  I must be really hot stuff!

Narcissism is addictive, and the Internet (and cell phones) feed that addiction.  It has reached the point at which we can't feel unplugged from the Matrix we have created for ourselves, even to the point when some moron feels the need to break the fourth wall in reverse by plugging his phone into an outlet on a set.  On a set.  I can just imagine what theater owners will do with this one; they'll install outlets throughout the theater and slap an "outlet surcharge" on tickets for seats next to the outlets. It's such a bad idea, I'm disclaiming royalties for it right now.

More than anything else except art, theater is about community.  Being part of an audience is the public's vehicle for joining that community.  Using a cell phone in the audience is simply an attempt to turn that community into your living room and hijack the rest of us into that space.  If you like your living room, please do all of us a favor and stay there.  Let the rest of us enjoy a shared experience untrammelled by ego.  And don't worry, Mr. Walters.  We'll provide feedback, just as we have for centuries.  We'll laugh.  We'll cry.  We'll applaud.  And, when it's all over, we'll feel better about having given up "me" time for a little bit of "us" time.

And guess what?  We'll still have our cell phones.  Then we can call our family and friends, and tell them to go do the same thing.

As for Patti, you go girl!  And don't give up the stage!

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