The time for theater patrons to test earphones is before a show, not during it

June 8, 2012

“Why are those people annoyed with me?” the older gentleman asked his wife in a loud stage whisper.

She wasn’t sure, but I was sitting in front of them at the Lansburgh Theatre, and I confess I was one of several people shooting that poor couple dirty looks. They were fiddling with earphones issued by the Shakespeare Theatre Company for “Krapp’s Last Tape,” performed by British star John Hurt. The theater was full, the show a very quiet solo piece by Samuel Beckett.

It lasted a scant hour, and the couple spent nearly all that time trying to get the earphones to function. Several times the earphones actually squeaked at such a high pitch that other earphones around the theater squeaked in sympathy. It was such a tooth-
achingly piercing sound that I fully expected stray dogs to wander in.

That couple had to have been longtime theater lovers. They weren’t the kind of philistines who think it’s okay to check e-mails, texts and tweets during a show. Nor were they paper rustlers.

And here I must briefly digress: Rustling noises, as when you unwrap hard candies during a show travel forward, driving the people sitting in front of you nuts. The same goes for people who like to roll their playbills into a tube, and then twist them around and tap them on their knees. On the other hand, the glowing light from smartphones drives the people next to and behind you nuts. Those devices pull audience members out of the play against their will.

(istockphoto)

But back to the earphones. What occurred that night at the Lansburgh was an extreme example of a common situation. I’ve been to matinees at one suburban theater where it was well into the first act before patrons using earphones got them to work. Ten to 20 minutes of loudly whispered, “Can you hear yours? Mine isn’t working!”

So I have a modest proposal for theater managers: During that pre-show announcement, after you’ve exhorted people to turn off their cellphones and unwrap their candies, why not take another minute and say, “Now we’re going to test the earphones for patrons using them tonight. Please turn them on now, and we will play a recording so that you can set your volume. Raise your hand if your earphones don’t seem to work, and an usher will assist you and replace them if necessary. Remember to remove hearing aids and turn them off, so they don’t interfere with the earphones. Thank you. The test will start now.”

Newer technologies may soon make all this fuss unnecessary, but until then . . .

Can you hear me now?

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

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