Are Misbehavin': No Tonys for These Performances
Theatergoers Act Out With Phones, Bare Feet -- and Fried Chicken, Too
By ELLEN GAMERMAN
Opening night of the Broadway revival of 'Hair.' Some performers have observed a decline in audience decorum.
Mim Pollock was at a performance of "South Pacific" last month when an audience member took off a shoe and propped her foot up on a rail in front of her. The woman, complaining of an injured knee, said she couldn't sit comfortably any other way, recalls Ms. Pollock, chief usher at New York's Vivian Beaumont Theater.
Other patrons were not amused. The offenders' toes "were practically in their nose," says Ms. Pollock. "And her feet smelled."
Theatergoers have long been accustomed to a measure of bad behavior: people who think their whispers are inaudible; snackers who open deafening cellophane candy wrappers; latecomers who knee-bump entire rows of settled attendees. But some theater veterans say manners are breaking down faster than ever.
Earlier this year, Patti LuPone lit up gossip blogs when she broke character in "Gypsy" to scream at an audience member taking pictures. Ms. LuPone says her frustration boiled over.
"I had just had 10 months of pointing out to ushers texting, pointing out to ushers videoing, pointing out to ushers somebody on a phone," she says. "I just freaked."
Last month, ushers and security guards at "Hair" began patrolling the balcony and aisles during the musical's famous nude scene because so many people were snapping pictures -- despite explicit warnings not to do so.
One night, actor Will Swenson, who plays a hippie named Berger, took a device from a person in the front row and threw it across the stage. "I just couldn't believe the gall of this woman who was videotaping me in my face," he says. A crew member deleted the video and returned the camera phone to its owner at intermission, he says.
The litany of misdemeanors is long. During a Saturday matinee of the Holocaust drama "Irena's Vow," a man walked in late and called up to actress Tovah Feldshuh to halt her monologue until he got settled. "He shouted, 'Can you please wait a second?' and then continued on toward his seat," recalls Nick Ahlers, a science teacher from Newark, N.J., who was in the audience. He says the actress complied.
Ms. Feldshuh says she typically pauses when she's interrupted. She doesn't recall the incident, which she says may be evidence of the Zen attitude she's cultivated onstage. "I have no negative energy about it to even remember," she says.
During a recent matinee of "God of Carnage," which explores the lives of two couples, a woman in the mezzanine screamed, "How 'bout those Yankees!" -- filling one of the play's intense silences. At "The Norman Conquests," an elderly man familiar with the British comedy script recited his favorite lines as the actors read them, prompting audience members to confront him at intermission. Steve Loucks, a theater blogger from Minneapolis who was sitting near the man, was stunned. "What is with people who think they're in their own living rooms?"
One theory: Broadway is vulnerable to boors because it is under pressure. More new shows opened this past season than at any point in the past 25 years, which means more seats to fill in a recession. In response, shows have been offering steep discounts on tickets, which can normally cost upwards of $100 apiece. BroadwayWorld.com, an entertainment site, is promoting a "Lucky Sevens" discount that offers a "Guys and Dolls" ticket for $7.77 with the purchase of a full-price seat.
TheaterMania's "Gold Club," which charges an annual fee of $99 in return for free tickets to a variety of shows, has seen membership increase 15% over last year, says Gretchen Shugart, the theater web site's CEO.
Audience demographics are also changing, according to The Broadway League, a trade group. More out-of-towners have been showing up in recent years. And the percentage of children and teens in the audience reached its highest point in three decades during the 2007-08 season.
Stage veterans don't agree about who's more likely to breach etiquette: A regular theatergoer or a newcomer? A person who has paid top dollar for a ticket or someone who paid next to nothing?
Dan Whitten, a producer of "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only," reduced ticket prices to the one-man ventriloquist show on Broadway in 2006. He says the tone of the crowd at times shifted. "I did find there was a little less -- I want to say 'decorum' -- for people when they haven't paid the full price."
Speakeasy: A Broadway Fan's Private Tony Awards Tommy Vance, who has worked as a bartender in Broadway houses since 2001, attributes some attitude problems to high-priced tickets. "You just spent all that money -- you don't want somebody else telling you what you can and cannot do during a show," reckons Mr. Vance, the bar manager at the Ambassador Theater, where a ticket to "Chicago" averages $76.
David Hyde Pierce, now starring in "Accent on Youth" on Broadway, has seen the gamut of faux pas. During "Curtains," for which he won the Tony for best actor in a musical in 2007, he witnessed a family passing a bucket of chicken down the front row.
"You want to take the bucket and stick it on their head," he says. "On the other hand, it also suggests these are people who don't usually go to the theater, and that's not a bad thing."
The vast majority of theatergoers comport themselves well, and unruly fans have been unofficial cast players forever, notes Stuart Thompson, a lead producer of "Exit the King" and "God of Carnage." Behavior that seems rude at a Chekhov play might fit in at a raucous rock musical, he adds.
Rowdy audiences have been around as long as stages. William Shakespeare's plays were performed outdoors while prostitutes and drunk spectators milled about eating fruit and nuts, talking back to the actors and throwing things at them. Theatergoers have even rioted. In New York in 1849, a dispute over rival actors in "Macbeth" led to a revolt outside the Astor Place Opera House that left more than 20 people dead.
When patrons misbehave nowadays, audiences aren't shy about playing police. Ben Admonius, a 26-year-old New Yorker, says that when a cell phone went off near him at "The Norman Conquests," the crowd's reaction was louder than the ring. "It was like lions jumping on a rabbit," he says.
Some shows are beginning to experiment with new etiquette rules. "Hair" director Diane Paulus is exploring ways to make the theater atmosphere more relaxed, less traditional. In order to keep up with the times, she plans to allow cell phones this summer at a theater space at the American Repertory Theater, in Cambridge, Mass., where she is the artistic director.
"I'll tell you, it's radical," she says. "I don't think there's a theater in America that tells you to turn your phone on."