theater etiquette

Undoubtedly, everything is faster paced now than in the ‘good old days,’ whenever those days may have been. Still, there’s no reason to automatically equate modern technology with rudeness, a self-centered attitude and a lack of common courtesy and grace.

Fact is, mobile technology units such as iPads and smart phones are so commonplace in our society that representatives of local theaters routinely ask their audiences to silence mobile devices prior to a performance. Being the creative and inspired artists that they are, often times, those requests are relayed in humorous fashion.

HotCity Theatre has made the ritual an art form of its own, often with a pre-recorded conversation between artistic director Marty Stanberry and managing director Bess Moynihan. Their inspired bits of zany humor not only whimsically make the point about intrusive interruptions in a performance, but also can get an audience in the mood for the production to follow.

Despite the pleasant requests for people to turn off their devices during a show, it’s amazing how often people are oblivious to direct requests. During the recent opening night performance of The Red Velvet Cake Wars at Kirkwood Theatre Guild, board member Cherol Thibaut most graciously and amusingly reminded the audience to silence mobile phones prior to the performance. Patrons chuckled at her humorous suggestion and the show began. Less than 15 minutes into the performance, a lady in the row in front of me heard her phone emit a particularly loud ring for what seemed like at least a minute, although undoubtedly it wasn’t quite that long. Still, it took her way too much time to find the phone in her purse and figure out how to silence it. So much for subtle reminders, eh?

As impressive as theater performers are at memorizing lines and shaping characters, it’s truly admirable how they react to adversity. At a matinee performance of an Act, Inc. show a couple of years ago, a man seated in front of me suddenly got up during the first act, walked a few feet and promptly fell like a sack of potatoes. Several of us hurried to assist him, including a nurse who happened to be in the audience. An ambulance was called for the man, who then became conscious and leaned against a wall. He was taken to the hospital, treated and released, which was most fortunate, since he turned out to be the bus driver for a group of senior citizens attending the show.

No sooner had he left and the show resumed when another man seated in my row answered his phone following really loud ring. Hello? I can’t talk right now. I’m at the theater. He said it loud enough for people on the other side of the theater to hear him. Really? Act, Inc.’s cast, however, carried on with nary a flinch.

Sometimes, the venue itself can lead to challenging moments. Last year, during the Cardinals’ unprecedented drive from mediocrity to a World Series title, the pivotal fifth game of the first round of the National League playoffs occurred on the same night as St. Louis Actors’ Studio opened its production of Nuts. The Studio performs at the Gaslight Theater, adjacent to the West End Grill & Pub next door, separated merely by a curtain. As a rowdy crowd gathered to view the game on the TV above the bar, the troupe’s performance began with the Cardinals clinging to a precarious one-run lead against the Philadelphia Phillies. Concentration was tough enough for the audience, as we conjectured by shouts or groans by the Grill’s patrons what might be happening on the field.

After one especially pronounced uproar was followed by an interminable period of silence, actress Donna Weinsting, who was on stage in a courtroom scene as the mother of a young woman on trial, thought to herself, “I think we won.” She was right. The Cardinals and pitcher Chris Carpenter defeated the Phillies, as Studio players performed with polished professionalism.

Courtesy, of course, should know no bounds. While The Muny stages productions in its amphitheater in Forest Park before audiences numbering in the thousands, a cell phone left on and ringing during a performance can be irritating to people around the offender, as well as be heard by performers on stage, even in such a large venue.

A recent production of The Compleat Works of Wllm. Shkspr, Abridged by St. Louis Shakespeare proved to be a riotously funny evening, thanks to its trio of comic actors, namely Ben Ritchie, Jamie Kurth and Joshua Nash Payne. The standard was set high in the prologue, when Kurth came on stage and proclaimed, If you have a cell phone, please turn it off. If you have a pager, throw it away and buy a cell phone.

See, it’s not necessary to ward off modern technology. It’s just that a little common sense and consideration for others can go a long way to raising the level of enjoyment for everyone. ‘Tis the season for giving, after all, so offer a little holiday cheer by complying with house etiquette.

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