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CHICAGO — Sept. 10, 2023: A date that will live in audience disruption infamy. That night at the Buell Theatre in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert and her date took a hike early in Act 2 of the touring production of “Beetlejuice: The Musical.” This was at the urging of theater staff and Denver police, after fellow audience members lodged several complaints against the busy couple on the aisle.
Boebert’s infractions included vaping inside the theater (cough); mutual groping with her date (take it outside!); selfies with the flash on (a hard no); and singing along with the cast (at least wait for the “Mamma Mia!” tour). Other infractions that night allegedly include Boebert’s straight-faced use of the phrase “Do you know who I am?” — a line yet to be delivered, on a stage, a screen or in life, by a single sympathetic character.
Is theater etiquette on its last legs? Even if what happened in Denver represents an extreme, what’s considered acceptable behavior these days? Two former theater critics, the Tribune’s Nina Metz and Michael Phillips, offer a few of their experiences and offer some ground rules we might try now and then. For old times’ sake.
Phillips: Regarding the Boebert incident, that’s really something. I can’t help but admire that degree of dubious audience behavior. Nina, what’s one of the weirder things you’ve witnessed as an audience member?
Metz: I was at Steppenwolf for a show one time and the person next to me was eating peanuts in the shell, and discarding the empty shells on the floor. No shame! And noisy. When people got up at intermission, it was crunch-crunch-crunch. Then there are the people who get a drink with ice during intermission and bring it back into the theater, and every time they tip it back to take a gulp during the performance, it’s that shhhhucckk sound, over and over.
Also: It’s totally OK — ahem, preferable — to ease up on the perfume or cologne. Or the garlic-y dinner ahead of time. Just saying ... if COVID has made us aware of anything, it’s that we’re all sharing the same air.
Phillips: In general I’ve probably caused more problems as a theatergoer just by showing up and being fairly tall. Especially covering shows in New York. In Chicago people may be more polite, or resigned to their bad luck if they end up sitting behind someone who’s ruining their view of the stage. But more often than not, when I took my seat for a show in New York, I’d hear this sort of anguished chorus of sighs and “oh my god no” behind me. Even before I was fully seated.
The worst was “Nine” with Antonio Banderas. Fellow behind me went into a sort of an excited panic when Banderas comes right to the edge of the stage for a number, just a few feet ahead of us. But I was in the way, so he rolled up his Playbill and started whapping me on the head, and blurting “Will you … will you just … will you just crouch down for a minute!?” Whap-whap-whap, kind of a wild, attention-getting moment.
Metz: Nobody likes an obstruction! When I saw “Hamilton,” I nabbed an orchestra seat — got it last minute but it was still a lot of money, which is why this next part matters: The incline in the orchestra section is very slight. Basically no incline at all. And the young woman in front of me had her hair styled in this beautiful top bun. And it blocked my view entirely. And you can’t do anything! It’s obnoxious to say something.
But at the very least, if it’s winter, take off your hat. It makes a difference. Anything you can do not to obstruct the person’s view.
Phillips: I’m hesitant to make this sound like there’s one strict regimen of behavior everyone has to follow at a play, or a movie, or whatever. Clearly there’s not. But there’s value in looking at the Boebert incident as the new yardstick in measuring what not to do. Or how many different ways to ignore common sense etiquette in a very short period of time.
We’re all being encouraged these days by theater marketing, and especially movie marketing, to post, text, take photos! Share! But also to remember to turn the phones off after intermission. Be an influencer! A disruptor! But don’t disrupt. With movies, some people will not be shushed. They don’t believe they should have to stop talking when the lights go down, because nobody shushes them at home when they do that.
It’s like the Dustin Hoffman line from “Midnight Cowboy”: “I’m walkin’ here!” Only now it’s “I’m talkin’ here!"
Metz: You know who else is probably thinking “I’m talkin’ here!”? The actors on stage! They are clocking every annoyance and I’m sympathetic. There was that time Patti LuPone famously stopped a show and grabbed a phone out of the hand of a texting audience member. Actors have truly seen it all and it’s their job to not let audience antics be a distraction as their pouring their heart and soul into a performance ... but what about the rest of us (laughs)?
Singing along at a musical — that’s maybe a different story. Not saying I like it, because that person a few seats over will never have as good a voice as the folks on stage. But when I saw “Jersey Boys,” the musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, there were so many people singing along because was the music of their youth. But then I thought, well, if this was about Jersey boys from a different decade altogether — I’m referring, of course, to Bon Jovi — I might’ve been singing along, too. I mean, that’s more or less the premise of a musical like “Rock of Ages.” They’re daring you not to sing along.
The thing about audience behavior ... what’s that Jean-Paul Sartre line?
Phillips: No exit?
Metz: Ha, no: “Hell is other people.” With some audiences, that’s how it feels. Especially if it’s a protracted battle over the armrest. Or that couple nearby who keep talking? During the show? Hello??
Except who wants to see a play with no one else there? I’ve actually had that experience at smaller theaters and it is awkward. You want people around you. I’d always rather be a face in the crowd instead of the Lone Audience Member.
Phillips: I love the communal audience experience too, no matter how messy or transgressive it can get sometimes. On the other hand, certain interactive experiences just aren’t my thing. Back when everybody was doing them, I thought the five scariest words in the English language were “interactive murder mystery dinner theater.”
Now, though … I still do.