Essay

Msg to Rude Playgoers: Trn Tht Drnd Thng Off!

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 21, 2007

It's supposed to be completely dark in the auditorium, but instead all these little light shows are going on. FLICK! The face of the guy across the aisle is bathed in a blue electronic glow. FLICK! Another man two seats down regularly seems to blink on and off -- he's a neon sign in jeans and sports coat. FLICK! FLICK! Two girls sitting several rows away seem to be radiating a slightly purple haze.

The people we've all purportedly come to see -- the ones who have their names in the program -- are on the stage trying to keep us entertained, or at least awake. I am only intermittently aware that the actors are walking around and moving their mouths at the moment, however, because of the competition they are getting from my neighbor across the aisle. I can't help it; every time he consults his little device with its brilliant light-emitting diode, my eye is distracted, my concentration broken. I am the moth to his digital flame.

If the 12 or so plagues visited on those of us who frequent the theater have long included incessant talking, lozenge unwrapping, armrest hogging and cellphone ringing, one has been added of late that is in some ways even more insidious: mid-performance text-messaging.

Once upon a time, checking your watch was the state-of-the-art response to a theatrical moment that bored you. The gesture can even exude a bit of critical panache: A universal pantomime for "Get me out of here!," it's a succinct and crisp and relatively unobtrusive expression of personal pique.

But now, the Treos and BlackBerrys and the multitasking superphones that do everything except rotate your tires are more than a momentary sideshow for the ticket buyer who might be less than enthralled with the main event. These addictive connections to the outside world create a whole other opportunity for diversion for those who want "out" of that evening's theatrical experience. And the confounding thing is, these flickering lights have the power to drag out a lot of us sitting around them, too.

Over the past decade, as the devices that people carry have become ever more portable and ubiquitous, theater managements increasingly have to be the equivalent of hallway monitors. The public-address warning to turn off electronic devices and unwrap candy is now as endemic to the theater as the playbill and the curtain calls.

Sometimes, given the expanding list of potential slights and distractions, it feels as if those announcements -- which a percentage of the audience never seems to heed, anyway -- could be designed to go on for almost as long as the production. I no longer am sure whether audience behavior is demonstrably less civil than in other epochs. (Although I do wonder whether Aeschylus ever had to shush some amphitheater boor from Tarsus.) I am keenly aware, however, that the sociable thread -- the one that permits us a consciousness of our impact on one another in public places such as theaters -- is fraying with each liberating personal convenience.

The erosion, too, of what people understand to be the rules of a night at the theater might be accelerating. It was reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer a couple of years ago, for instance, that just before the start of a Saturday night performance of "Menopause: The Musical," a pizza deliveryman arrived at the theater "with a large plain pie for a group of women in Row K." (The paper said that the artistic director intervened, explaining to the women that they were "not at the circus.")

No one's ever dug into a slice of pepperoni-with-mushrooms at a show I've been to. But I can report that a Broadway usher once told me that in her theater, she found an entire meatloaf under a seat after one performance, and chicken bones after another. Here in Washington, one of the oddest accouterments I've ever come across was a little dog, carried by its owner in a large handbag into a performance at Studio Theatre.

At least the dog had the compassion to turn off its electronic devices. Which is frequently not the case for the human clientele. A few weeks ago, at a Friday night performance of Synetic Theater's new "The Fall of the House of Usher," I watched as a man seated five or six rows from the stage of the Rosslyn Spectrum consulted a glowing little screen every two or three minutes. It became a production unto itself. Never mind that the vibrant one he had ostensibly come to see was a thrill for the eye. His eyes were glued to the tiny illuminated thing -- an experience he forced me to share.

What, I wondered, occupied this gentleman, and so many like him, before such things existed? Was it possible that they ever simply sat still? (I also marvel at how, before plastic bottles became essential at all times, people actually endured an entire hour of theater without taking a sip of water.) At another production, of a play by an Irish writer, three young women directly in front of me settled into their seats and a few minutes into the first act, pulled out their BlackBerrys and cellphones.

Weary of the drama, they began to send text messages -- to each other, I believe. (The judgment they rendered on the play was not so much thumbs-down as thumbs-on.) And we on their fringe became reluctant eavesdroppers on their battery-charged chatter.

They left at intermission, the most humane thing they could have done. This was behavior to be engraved in the commandments of theater etiquette for the 21st century: If the urge to text outpaces your tolerance for subtext, then please: Take it outside.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company