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Beverly Beckham

Keep it quiet in the theater

You’re sitting in a theater watching a play that you paid a lot to see — and it’s a good play, intense and riveting. You hear everything that everyone has said, and you’re captivated, immersed in the story, unaware of the people beside you and around you.

Then the crinkling starts.

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You try to ignore it. On the stage sits a solitary man telling a story that you care about, that you are invested in. But the spell has been broken. You don’t hear words anymore. All you can hear is crinkling.

The crinkler was seated one row ahead of me at the Huntington Theater’s production of “Invisible Man.” It was Act I, and she was opening a bag of something. When she succeeded, she reached into the bag and crinkled again and again and again.

This wasn’t the first time that someone’s behavior got in the way of a performance. It happens. But this show was quiet and she was loud. What’s the proper thing to do in a situation like this?

Do you confront the offender? Or do you put up with the situation and quietly stew? Do you lean over and whisper, “Can you please, for the love of all things holy, stop eating!” which is really, really what you want to do, or do you wait for intermission and complain to management?

I posed this question to Rosanne Thomas, founder and president of Boston-based Protocol Advisors Inc., because she is an expert in the business of teaching people manners.

Thomas makes her living hosting seminars for businesses, for golfers, for young and older workers, for just about everyone. She teaches respect and inclusion in the workplace and new social-media skills and international protocol. She even has a workshop for children wanting to impress relatives with their table manners. Five kids I know took it two months ago and they are talking about it, still.

Which is why I asked Thomas what should a person do when someone’s behavior is annoying? What should I have done?

“Never be rude back,” she said immediately. “Give people the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes people don’t know they’re being rude. Sometimes they’re not aware that they’re bothering someone.”

Theater manners, however, she said, “should definitely be up a notch or two. With what people pay for theater tickets, latecomers (fortunately, they are not normally allowed in until an opportune time) as well as eaters, gum chewers, coughers, talkers, hummers, singers, laughers, and even sleepers and snorers can all be an annoyance for those seated nearby.”

But, she says, people who go to the theater and need to be reminded how to behave aren’t entirely at fault. “Concession stands send a mixed message.” If you can buy M&Ms in the lobby, people need a reminder that they’re not to be eaten in the theater. “The expectation must be known.”

When known, most are met. Before every performance, an announcer reminds people not to record a production, not to take pictures, and to shut off their cellphones. And generally these standards are met.

Not to eat and disturb people around them should be a reminder, too. And about a month ago, in addition to reminders not to eat or drink, an announcer at a local event said before a performance, “And if anyone has anything to unwrap, a mint, a cough drop, please do it now.”

But what if, after all this, people still still eat and drink and crinkle and crunch?

“Be polite when addressing the behavior,” Thomas said. Make your words less about them and more about you.

“I’m sure you’re not aware . . . ”

“I’m sorry I’m having a little trouble hearing . . . ”

Gentle. Nice. Nonconfrontational words.

Nothing like, “Can you please, for the love of all things holy, please, please, please stop eating!” — which is still what I really want to say.

Beverly Beckham can be reached at Bevbeckham@ aol.com.
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