The Problem — and a Tale — of Theater Productions Starting Later and Later

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Noises OffWhen I was occasionally covering New York’s cabaret scene during the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a snarky phrase in use called “CST.” It stood for “Cabaret Standard Time” and was meant to skewer the practice of shows getting underway 15, 20 or even 30 minutes later than the advertised time. It struck me precisely as how one could define the word “absurd”: The more you can clock the lateness by which a show gets started, the more you can flout or ignore the advertised curtain time, since you know you won’t miss any of the show. And the more shows refuse to start on time, rewarding and encouraging audience tardiness, the later a show can actually begin without generating audience upset. In this negative-feedback loop, time slips into meaninglessness. Instead of the house management conditioning audiences to be punctual, audiences are conditioning house management to stretch 5- and 10-minute holds into delays of half an hour or more.

Operas, I have found, operate more strictly. If the curtain time is 8pm, operas commence at 8pm. As the phrase goes, snoozing means losing — and no opera audience in my experience cottons to being interrupted by shleppy latecomers unable to get their act together enough to sit down on time. Not that operas never commence after a 5-minute hold, but there is a sense of time possessing importance, a sense that if performers are expected to take responsibility for showing up punctually enough to perform, audiences should be expected to be punctual enough to spectate. It seems to me, moreover, that all other aspects of contemporary audience etiquette, including the ongoing problem of people unable to silence their cell phones, flows from this fundamental issue. If you don’t care what time a play begins, why would you care what happens during the play itself?

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This brings me to the frustrating experience I had recently at a performance of Love’s Labour’s Lost, presented by the Shakespeare’s Globe, at Pace University’s Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts. (Feel free to read my review, written for Back Stage, here.)

The curtain time was advertised for 8pm. I was seated by 7:50pm, though that took some doing. To get inside, there was a queue down the block so long it looked like the exodus of the Jews from Egypt; I had to dive into the street to zoom past the queue in order to pick up my press seat. In the theater, I noticed controlled chaos all around. I actually heard a woman behind me tell an usher, “They told us just to sit anywhere we could find an empty seat.”

No, I didn’t expect Love’s Labour’s to begin precisely at 8pm, given the fact that New York theater has been suffering more and more from a chronic case of CST — let’s actually dub it TST, or Theater Standard Time, given how widespread 8:12pm or even 8:15pm curtains are on Broadway of late. However, I did expect the performance to be underway no later than 8:10pm or so, given that the running time of this particular production is slightly less than three hours.

‘Twasn’t to be. First 8:05pm passed. Then 8:10pm. An announcement was made that, due to a sold-out house, the curtain would be held until 8:15pm. I don’t know what clock the house management at the Schimmel Center was going by, but my perfectly accurate Kenneth Cole watch zipped past 8:20pm and was heading right for 8:25pm when the play finally began. And it began, may I add, not directly with the lovely words of Shakespeare (“Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives,/Live registered upon our brazen tombs…”), but with an actor admonishing us to turn off our cell phones. Thank you so much, dear Bard — I’ve only had a half-hour in which to do so.

The interval, to use the British phrase for intermission, began around 10:10pm. Due to the lateness of the hour — and in light of the fact that Pace University’s downtown location means a long-ish subway ride home for me — I decided to call home so the Significant Other would know what time I’d return to the manse. May I emphasize one more time that this was the break between the acts? The time, in other words, when one goes to the bathroom, has a drink at the bar, reads the program, talks to friends, to strangers, catches up with acquaintances — and makes lots of collective noise.

An usher, who couldn’t have been more than 20, made a bee-line for me about three minutes into my call. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said, her rather extraordinary blue eyes burning a hole in my head. “We have to ask you to leave.”

“Excuse me?,” I huffed.

“Don’t you know there’s a new law? You can’t talk on your cell phone inside the theater.”

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Oh, a new law. That’s right! She must mean the one generally unenforced on Broadway. The law Mayor Bloomberg vetoed because he declared it unenforceable.

“Excuse me,” I said. “But I reported on that law — and it isn’t a new law.” Inside of two infuriated breaths I gave the lass a short history of the law and asked what earthly harm would result from talking on my cell phone during an interval.

At first she didn’t know what to say. (All right, I do come on a little strong.) She said the house management told the ushers to ask any cell-phone user inside the theater to step into the lobby and that she was simply doing her job. This is the same house management that apparently had no earthly awareness of a sold-out house and couldn’t handle the crush of ticket-holders efficiently enough to safely launch Love’s Labour’s by 8:10pm.

I felt terrible as the poor girl melted away. Before she did, however, I let her know that the idea is to stop people from using their cell phones during the play. And I was quite aware — and pleased — that no cell phone had gone off during the first half of the performance.

But a cell phone did go off during the second half. It was during this speech by Rosaline:

Why, that’s the way to choke a gibing spirit,
Whose influence is begot of that loose grace
Which shallow laughing hearers give to fools:
A jest’s prosperity lies in the ear
Of him that hears it, never in the tongue 2805
Of him that makes it: then, if sickly ears,
Deaf’d with the clamours of their own dear groans,
Will hear your idle scorns, continue then,
And I will have you and that fault withal;
But if they will not, throw away that spirit, 2810
And I shall find you empty of that fault,
Right joyful of your reformation.

Specifically, the person’s cell phone went off on the word “idle.” How utterly appropriate.

And the usher, of course, was nowhere to be found.

(Final note: Chris Jones wrote a terrific post on a similar issue for his blog at the Chicago Tribune. Read it here.)

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  • You had no reason to feel terrible for what you said to the usher. Some nerve on her uneducated part.

  • Jne Ryan, Esq

    Oy, oy OY
    Were it a woman whose water breaks during Act II of Streetcar, she is forgiven for ringing her gyno.
    Otherwise, take a pill and STFU. The nerve of some people. Intermission is just that – a BREAK.
    Take it, love it, relish it, call your hubby!

  • Opera is on time because of the musicians’ union. A fifteen minute hold can mean fifteen minutes of punishing overtime.

    Then there’s Spain. Dunno how the theatres work, but on a recent trip my husband said that at the meetings, even the Italians got frustrated by the lateness of everything!

  • C Heath

    Nice post. Nice response to the usher.

    My shows in February will start on time.

    :)

  • justin

    Isn’t your argument about respecting the theater? Treating it as a place worthy of punctuality. It seems you make a strong case for better behavior in the theater. But, I would argue (regardless of the ‘law’) you are showing a degree of disrespect by using your phone in the theater. I mean, if you want to treat it as sacred, by ll means do so. If a theater wants to be treated as a ruckus, bawdy, late night event, well, also ok. But standing in the house where hopefully there was just tangible performance energy and the echo’s of poetry, pulling out your cell phone, and dragging the rest of the viewers into your own dialog, seems to me at least as disrespectful as a show getting off the ground 20 min. late.

    • Except that it’s intermission. Whatever poetry or energy there was is already vanished from the moment people get up and talk and move their coats around and climb out of the aisles and make a ton of noise (and in this case, bitch about how late it was). Using a cell phone during a performance — of course not. During intermission, when the noise is such that arguably you can’t hear who you’re talking to? I don’t think it matters.