Patti LuPone and Cellphone-gazi

Patti Lupone
Patti LuPone speaks to the audience.
Patti Lupone
Patti LuPone speaks to the audience.

The Big News in the theater this past week was that Patti LuPone, appearing as a “small-town theater diva” in Show for Days, went into the audience and, like a first grade teacher, took away a patron’s cell phone who had annoyed her by texting throughout the first act. It was the climax of a no good, very bad day for LuPone, who had apparently endured cell phones going off several times during the matinee performance as well, creating, the New York Post quoted her as saying, “a cacophony of noise.” Obviously beside herself (her favorite position, as Danny Kaye once said), Lupone complained to Playbill, “We work hard onstage 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. . . When a phone goes off or when a LED screen can be seen in the dark, it ruins the experience for everyone else.” The next day, in the midst of a seeming existential crisis, LuPone pondered whether acting on the stage was worth it. “I am so defeated by this issue,” she confessed, “that I seriously question whether I want to work on stage anymore.”

The New York Post gave her “three cheers” for her action; spectators tweeted their support (after the show, of course); and the incident was covered by the press as if it were a bold strike against the barbarism of the age. Reflecting the hysteria surrounding the incident, the New York Times’ Eric Piepenberg said in his interview of LuPone, “It takes one screen to disrupt an entire theater.” One screen, dammit! The Post Editorial Board, collectively instructed LuPone to “consider this a standing ovation,” admonishing Broadway theatergoers to “Have some respect, folks. If you can’t put your (muted) phone away for the length of a show, don’t go.”

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Indeed, by all rights the offender might have been arrested! In February of 2003, according to Leonard Jacobs writing in Backstage,

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The Consumer Affairs Committee of the New York City Council voted 5-2 in favor of superseding Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s veto of a law banning the use of cell phones in places of public performance….The measure makes it a punishable offense to use a cell phone “any place…where members of the public assemble to witness cultural, recreational, or educational activities,” including live theatres, libraries, museums, galleries, movie theatres, and concert halls.

This ridiculous and totally unenforceable law remains on the books today, presumably accompanied by an amendment requiring a standing ovation following every performance.

Nicky Sylvestri
Nick Sylvestri / via

A few days earlier, theater people were equally incensed by the actions of 19-year-old Nick Sylvestri who, apparently having had a few drinks prior to a performance of Hand to God, jumped up onstage prior to the start of the show and tried to recharge his cell phone using an electrical outlet on the set. The horror! A few days after the LuPone incident, the producers of Hand to God, apparently hoping to capitalize on the furor, called a press conference to decry contemporary theater etiquette. Variety’s “legit editor” (as opposed to the illegitimate editor, I guess), covering the press conference, wailed, “Cell phones in Broadway theaters: What are people thinking?” In his defense, Sylvestri said, “I don’t go to plays very much, and I didn’t realize that the stage is considered off limits.” A likely story.

As a member of Patti LuPone’s generation, and also as someone who has performed in his share of shows, I know that I am supposed to join the throng and bewail our descent into electronic barbarism. Kids these days, I should harrumph, were they brought up in a barn? After all, I’ve succumbed to my own outrage on just such a matter: once I yelled at a costume designer during the first dress rehearsal of Equus, in which I was playing Dysart, for talking to her Assistant Designer in the front row of our tiny arena theater. “I can’t WORK like this,” I shouted, interrupting my own opening monologue. And at intermission, I angrily told the director he should just show the movie for the second half, if people were going to be gabbing during my speeches. But I digress.* Anyway, I ought to be all “you go, girl” to dear Ms. LuPone.

But as a theater historian, I just can’t do it.

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Hernani Audience
The first audience of Hernani / via

The fact is that our current idea of theater (or classical music or ballet, for that matter) as a cross between a church and a library is a recent development. In ancient Greece, audiences pelted the stage with nut shells and, when unhappy with the play, pounded the backs of their feet against the their wooden benches (imagine 15,000 people doing that); Shakespeare’s spectators bought food, ate, drank and heckled the stage with alacrity; Moliere and the playwrights of the English Restoration had to put up with courtiers seated on the stage itself competing to see who could be wittier, not to mention prostitutes circulating through the audience setting up assignations; Victor Hugo’s premiere of Hernani was repeatedly stopped by fisticuffs in the orchestra; audiences in 19th century America attending a Shakespeare production or an opera regularly stopped the show in order to demand that an actor reprise a well-delivered monologue or the soprano sing a popular aria one more time; and, of course, the communication between the house and the stage was quite energetic during melodramas.

Richard Wagner:
Grandfather of the Fourth Wall

It isn’t until the late 19th and early 20th century that some theatergoers, trying to escape the presence of the uncouth and all-too-enthusiastic immigrant lower classes, created a split in the arts between “high” and “low,” “elite” and “popular” that involved the prohibition of vocal participation in the performance. The first thing they did was plunge the audience into darkness while brightly lighting the stage. Richard Wagner, that little martinet, gets credit for that one, and the effect of his brainstorm was twofold. First, it isolated the spectator, who until that time was part of a visible community whose reactions to the production could be shared and amplified. Second, and more importantly, the brightly-lit stage made it possible for the actor to pretend that the audience wasn’t there, because they simply couldn’t see beyond the lights in their eyes. Without this separation of light and dark, stage and audience, the creation of the fourth wall, which required the actor to ignore the audience completely, would not have been possible.

Once the spectators were no longer visible, it was easier to demand that they no longer be audible as well. After all, silence was absolutely crucial to the new acting styles, such as Stanislavski’s, which demanded that actors become so focused on their inner psychological states that they remain oblivious to all but their own souls. Actors became a combination of priests and tightrope walkers in constant danger of toppling off their emotional tightropes, giving birth to theater as meditation. Respect for the difficulty of their feats demanded absolute silence.

Not surprisingly, playwrights began writing plays for these acting styles — tiny emotional dramas requiring stillness and invisibility from the audience. A sneeze, a cough, a whisper, much less a light on a face, became an earthquake in these situations. Patti LuPone’s co-star, Michael Urie, described the situation well in People Magazine (People Magazine??!!) when he said, “It’s a very funny play and it’s a very quiet play, even though Patti LuPone’s in it, and she’s like a trumpet. It’s still a very quiet play and the theater is very intimate . . . you can hear a pin drop.”

To my mind, the sound of that dropping pin is a death knell for the stage.

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We’ve just gotten so damned boring, so damned esoteric, so damned subtle and so damned untheatrical that, combined with ever-rising ticket prices, the shrinking of the audience for drama shouldn’t surprise us in the least. The same is true of classical music, where people attract disapproving frowns for involuntarily sneezing, for crying out loud. It’s like the audiences at these art forms have taken on the characteristics of the stereotypical librarian – shhhhhh! Listen! We can’t hear that pin drop if you’re sneezing.

We’ve made the theatrical experience so fraught with the rules of etiquette that nobody wants to venture into a theater. Teachers bringing young, excited children to see a play repeatedly admonish their elementary-school charges to shut up and sit still, draining all the fun out of the event. And it’s not just kids. I was in a mixed audience at a performance of A Raisin in the Sun in which some of the African-American spectators were responding vocally in support of what the characters were saying — “Amen!” “Mmm-hmmm, oh yeah!” — when a middle-aged white person turned around and flashed a dirty look at them. Don’t they know how to behave in a theater?

Abandon all life, ye who enter here.

At any other time, theater people are adamant that we desperately need to get more young people to attend the theater. Yet here were two young people, including a teenage male, for crying out loud, and we’re publicly shaming them for doing what young people do. “I don’t go to plays very much,” he said, “and I didn’t realize that the stage is considered off limits.” I know, I know — boorishness, etiquette, focus, concentration. Those theater tickets are so expensive, why should I put up with my experience being ruined by a couple of insensitive dolts? Well, here’s the deal: you know those so-called “blue-hairs” that you have so much scorn for? They are really quiet. Either quit talking about getting more young people into the theater and embrace the elders, or adapt.

Bertolt Brecht

If we really want theater to become a vibrant part of our culture again, I think we need to get over this obsession about quiet. Playwrights ought to write plays as if they are going to be performed in noisy bars or in a middle-school lunchroom — plays that are so dynamic that it is impossible to look away to check Facebook, plays that are so noisy that hearing a ringtone is impossible. Actors need to be taught methods of acting that don’t involve going into a trance, methods that allow them to interact with the spectators, to step out of character and banter with them if required, to be present in the same place with the audience breathing the same air, hearing the same sounds, sharing an experience. That’s what makes theater unique. If the audience wants to be ignored, film does it way better than theater ever can. We can’t compete. So instead, do what film can’t do: turn the lights up in the house, acknowledge the presence of the audience, and make theater together. Look back to theater history for lessons. Brecht wrote about it, John McGrath demonstrated it, Ariane Mnouchkine made it work, and every tradition prior to the 20th century demonstrated it.

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We can’t keep the 21st century outside the theater much longer. People come through the doors (if we’re lucky) and they are carrying cell phones. That’s a fact. Sometimes they forget to turn those cell phones off, and they ring. Get used to it. It happens everywhere, and it will continue happening. Accept it, and make it irrelevant. Earn attention, don’t expect it. Overcome the distraction of the age by being so compelling that people can’t look away, and can’t be distracted by someone texting.

It’s time for theater to stop being Deadly (to use Peter Brook’s phrase in The Empty Space), and instead become Rough. Brook writes

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Through the ages it has taken many forms, and there is one factor that they all have in common — a roughness. Salt, sweat, noise, smell: the theatre that’s not in a theatre, the theatre on carts, on wagons, on trestles, audiences standing, drinking, sitting around tables, audiences joining in, answering back…” In other words, theatre that embraces life instead of barring it.

And if that means Patti LuPone decides not to grace the live stage anymore, it’ll be sad because she’s a damn good performer, but so be it.

It is time for theater to rejoin the world.

* In my defense, it was my first time on stage in 20 years and I was having a helluva time remembering my lines, which was causing a level of panic. I apologized to the cast and crew the next day for behaving like a diva.