I certainly didn’t need another reason to admire Patti LuPone, but she has given one to me — and to plenty of other theatergoers who are fed up with the ignorant, clueless behavior of some audience members, Boston very much included.
During Wednesday night’s performance of “Shows for Days,’’ the new play in which she is starring at Lincoln Center, LuPone reached down and grabbed a cell phone out of the hand of a spectator who apparently felt that a live theater performance was a swell time to do some texting.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve wanted to do what LuPone did. Perhaps the same is true for you? It’s a small minority of offenders, but it only takes one dolt to mar an evening at the theater, as anyone knows who has seethed through a performance while distracted by phones, glowing in the corner of our peripheral vision or suddenly trilling. (In my experience, the former is a bigger problem than the latter.)
The rise of digital technology has corresponded with the Rise of the Dunderheads. Before a recent performance of “Hand to God’’ on Broadway, some guy climbed onto the stage and tried to use a fake electrical outlet to power his cell phone. I recall a performance of “Blood Play’’ at the Paramount Center a couple of years ago during which a guy seated in the front row — just a few feet from the performers — sent text messages nonstop. (The cast should have availed themselves of The LuPone Option.) It’s not uncommon for me to see at least one cell phone in my vicinity that has not been turned off during an evening at the theater.
Why aren’t theaters more vigilant about this? Why do they content themselves with those bland, easy-to-ignore pre-show requests, spoken or recorded, that patrons please turn off their cell phones? Why not put some teeth in it by warning violators that they may be asked to leave the theater, and requiring ushers to keep an eye out for that telltale glow? Why does Patti LuPone, or any other actor, have to take matters into her own hands? Last year Kevin Spacey halted a performance of “Clarence Darrow’’ in London when a spectator’s cell phone kept ringing. “If you don’t answer that, I will!’’ Spacey yelled. The audience gave him a round of applause.
Here’s the thing. Theater audience members have one job and one job only: to sit there quietly and pay attention to the work onstage that playwrights, actors, directors, and designers have busted their butts to create — and that you, dear audience, have paid often-substantial sums to see. One of the benefits of live performance is that it takes us out of the digital cocoons in which we already spend far too much of our lives. Why squander that benefit? And while we’re on the subject of misbehavior: Do not yammer through the performance as if you’re sitting at home, watching a TV reality show.
LuPone, of course, became a YouTube phenomenon in 2009 for her tirade against an audience member who was snapping photos during a performance of “Gypsy’’ (“Stop, stop, stop taking pictures right now. You heard the announcement. Who do you think you are?”) During a conversation with host Seth Rudetsky at The Art House in Provincetown a few summers ago, LuPone talked about her “Gypsy’’ eruption, expressing sadness and regret that it came to be seen as a joke.
She described how her own playgoing experiences have been compromised by the behavior of patrons seated near her. Then she spoke eloquently, and with considerable emotion, about how audience members can be robbed of something sacred — their right to lose themselves in the theatrical experience — when someone sitting near them doesn’t know enough to keep quiet during a performance.
LuPone will probably get some flak for her phone-grabbing. But she released a statement Thursday that was blessedly unapologetic.
“We work hard on stage to create a world that is being totally destroyed by a few rude, self-absorbed and inconsiderate audience members who are controlled by their phones,’’ LuPone said. “They cannot put them down. When a phone goes off or when a LED screen can be seen in the dark it ruins the experience for everyone else — the majority of the audience at that performance and the actors on stage. I am so defeated by this issue that I seriously question whether I want to work on stage anymore. Now I’m putting battle gear on over my costume to marshal the audience as well as perform.’’
Well said, Patti. I hope you keep up the good fight. But it’s wrong that you should have to.Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.