Wednesday, January 26, 2011

An Open Letter to Some People Who Attended the UCLA-Live Event This Past Saturday

Greetings from another member of the audience:

Before I address you individually, I should probably provide a little background regarding my experiences with live theatre…

Throughout my childhood, my parents were actively involved in two community theatre groups. One group staged three plays during the school year, while the other – an open-air venue – had a summer season comprising five plays. When my parents first became involved, they signed on to do props for one of the summer productions. Within a few years, though, they both had moved on to the stage, where they would, over the years, fine-tune their acting skills with style and grace.

When my sister and I were old enough to participate, we, too, volunteered for assignments, and while Martha would certainly accept production work, she really enjoyed acting more. (And, like my parents, she was quite good.) I, on the other hand, never got bit by the bug, and so – with the exception of a few very small roles that I performed quite poorly – I preferred to make my contributions as part of the backstage crew.

More often than not, though, I was in the audience, and I learned, at a young age, that the audience of a live performance should be respectful of the time, energy, passions, and talent that have gone into the mounting of a theatre production. Which is to say, the audience should give its full attention to the stage.

When I lived in New York, I continued to enjoy attending theatrical events. Broadway was affordable then, and with the option of placing the word “off-” in front of that concept, and then repeating it – as many times as you please – there was never a shortage of productions taking place in smaller venues throughout the City. I probably saw more than 50 plays and musicals during my 15 years in New York.

My theatre attendance in Los Angeles has been a bit more spotty. While I have seen several remarkable shows at some of the area’s larger venues, my having to be a bit more careful with money in recent years has put a dent in my theatre-going. Part of the problem is that I have “open space issues.” In most theatres, the balcony area (that is, where the cheap seats are) is way too high for me, and the grade is much too steep. I simply cannot enjoy what’s happening on the stage when I fear I will topple over my fellow patrons as I make my way, headfirst (and quite fatally), into the orchestra section.

(I realize, by the way, that there are terms for these “issues:” acrophobia, in regard to the fear of heights; and agoraphobia, in regard to the fear of open spaces. But I prefer simply to call the combination a profound and deep respect for the concept of gravity.)

Anyway, because of the economy, I’ve curtailed my theatre-going in recent years, and I even had to think about it for a minute, last week, when my friend Maria asked if I were interested in attending the Wallace Shawn performance at UCLA’s Royce Hall. But I’ve admired the writer/actor ever since I saw My Dinner With Andre back in the 80s, and the $45 ticket price didn’t seem like such a huge amount after three busy weeks of billable hours.

Which brings me to you people: you five or six people who also had forked over some money for tickets; you five or six people who were sitting nearby…

Some words first to the couple three rows ahead. I am very happy that you found each other. Your common need to fondle the hair and ear of your partner will probably make for a long relationship. But, seriously, get a room. Even with the house lights down, it was impossible not to be distracted by your public displays of obsession, and you need to cop to the fact that, because neither of you is petite (especially not you, sir), you will never be able to enjoy this shared fetish in a manner that is discreet.

Now to the two young ladies sitting behind my friend and me. Yes; you two. I appreciate that you probably got a student discount to attend the event, but that doesn’t mean you are entitled to chatter away while the performer is on stage. I am glad that when I turned around and glared at you, you stopped talking. I also was pleased when the man across the aisle silently got up from his seat, approached you both, and let you know – in a stage whisper – that the light emanating from your blackberry was bothering him and others. But don’t think for a moment that I didn’t notice your continued attempts to sneak back into that little machine and do whatever technological task apparently could not wait. I noticed it, and it bothered me.

As to the dude sitting in the row in front of us... Yes; you -- with the bright and distracting handheld device. My friend shared with me later that you were playing a video game on your little machine. Really? So, what happened? Did you win? And, why, by the way – if you were wanting to play computer games – did you choose to do so in a theatre?

As for the folks down the row, my peripheral vision also caught your illuminated screens. Was there an emergency? Was that the deal? Or maybe your text simply stated: yeah, I’m at the theatre.

To the five or six of you and whoever else was multitasking in Royce Hall, shame on you. Not behaving properly at a public event is equivalent to having a lack of social skills. And, in my opinion, you people are lacking in social skills.

Shame on you.

…Of course, before Shawn took the stage, the usual announcement was made. You know the one – it’s the same as is made in movie theatres: please turn off cell phones, pagers, and any illuminated handheld devices, [etc.] What’s interesting is that, while this request was being abused all over Royce Hall on Saturday night, I have rarely seen it abused in movie theatres.

Maybe people just need to see what they see on screens. And if that’s true, then what that means, I guess, is that a movie can replace those handheld devices, but a live human cannot.

Hmm, are we really so screen-addicted?

I realize, of course, that I am looking at one now.

And so are you.

But I also am not pretending to do, hear, or see something else simultaneously. And I hope the same goes for you.

…After his performance, which included readings (from his own work and others) around the theme of Real World, Fake World, Dream World, Wallace Shawn entertained some questions from the audience. A few of those questions provided him with an opportunity to elaborate on what a mess our world has become and how we should, in fact, be worried.

I appreciate his perspective.

And if he was aware – during his 90 minutes on stage – of the multi-tasking that was occurring in the audience, I also appreciate his ability not to give it any power. I could not have done that. Had it been me behind the lectern, I would have stopped in my tracks, shut my mouth, and refused to continue talking until the collective rudeness had virtually left the room.

Good thing, I guess, that I’ve always preferred the backstage assignments.


Martha Gates-Mawson said...

Brilliant blog. It makes me crazy when people are disrespectful of others who are forced to share space with them when they and their little gadgets venture forth. And respect to Mr. Shawn for, as you say, not giving these louts power. (And, dear one, thanks for the compliment re the acting. Those were such good days.)

Paul C said...

I chuckled about several phobias in your life...don't we all have several? One of my pet peeves is what you describe so well, people connected with hand held devices or people who must hear music for all to hear. Thank goodness for iPods, the new ghetto blasters for the ear. Always a pleasure to receive comments from you.

Lazarus said...

Our society is, sadly, PDA obsessed. Glad to see there are still some with common sense and class Katie, keep up the good fight!

Sioux Roslawski said...

I'm with you. I was recently in a meeting, and a fellow volunteer's phone kept "ringing" after each text she got. The ring tone sounded like a (very loud) doorbell. We tried to encourage her to turn it onto vibrate or off, to no avail.

I think "those people" think that others will view them as ever-so-important. And I agree: why do people want everyone privy to their personal conversations?

Lisa Ricard Claro said...

Yes, Katie! I agree 100%. The rudeness knows no age boundaries, either. Teenagers or middle-agers, it seems to make little difference. And how will junior learn when to turn off his video game when Dad won't shut down his Blackberry?

Anonymous said...

I love the open letter theme to this post. What a great way to let off steam, and with humour too! I hope the six read it. I share your fear of heights Katie. So many London Theatres have seats set so steeply that one feels one will be tipped into the orchestra pit at any given moment. Years ago, a friend and I saw Phantom of the Opera in 'Her Majesty's Theatre' Haymarket, London. We had somehow managed to obtain seats right up in 'the Gods', something I had not done since my teens. The players appeared as ants on the stage below and I was afraid to lean forward lest I join I them. We had been given opera glasses when a parachute would have been more beneficial. The saving grace of the show came when The Phantom, played by Michael Crawford, was lifed up to soar through the air as he sang and came within a whisper of our faces. That was magical! :-)

Joey @ Big Teeth and Clouds said...

I'm pretty irritated at any kind of a public event. People have no respect for those around them. I guess it's not important to respect the performers either. The last thing I went to was children's theater. I actually got up and asked a mom to control her kids. They were having a loud conversation and crawling around under a table. She stayed, annoying us, for the whole performance and then ran out as soon as it was over. I think she was afraid I might beat her up!

Anonymous said...

The sad thing about this is that the folks to whom it is directed are so self-important that they believe it is their RIGHT to be available at all times to the entire world, via portable devices. As for the couple giving each other tonsillectomies in front of you - well, maybe they couldn't find anyone else as a date that night, and they were grabbling for all it was worth. EAWWWWWW! Great post. Send it to the LA Times and I bet they will print it.

Linda Medrano said...

I get very irritated when I go to the theater and people don't show good manners. The "texting" thing is so rude even in restaurants unless you are sitting alone. I can't imagine showing such a lack of respect for a performer whatever the venue. Perhaps they are so "important" they just have to be plugged in. Uh huh. Then stay home, important one!

cj Schlottman said...

Katie, This rings so true! Recently I attended a concert by the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra, of which my nephew is a member - oboe. During the entire performance, cell phones were ringing, kids were playing their Game Boys, and their parents were doing anything about it. When glares didn't get any results, I had to speak to two woman whose kids were disrupting the performance for all of us.

Great and timely post!


Deb Shucka said...

Wonderful piece. I loved the bit about respect for gravity, which I share with you wholeheartedly. I also can't sit under the balcony, because balconies are not immune from the pull either.

I really think you should publish this piece. I don't get paying that kind of money and then not listening, and the frustration of other people's noise and nonsense during a performance is enough to make me want to be socially inappropriate myself.