Should we be speaking out or shutting up during a show?
My recent visit to Centaur Theatre’s production of Intimate Apparel quickly became the quintessential night at the modern theatre. Before the first scene had ended, people across the auditorium were illuminated by the glow of their smartphones. Then my neighbour began to treat me to what would become a running commentary regarding the play. I probably wouldn’t have minded if my neighbor had been director Micheline Chevrier, but in this case it was just a middle-aged woman out for a night with her friends.
“Oh look at her!” she breathed to her friend upon actress Patricia Summerset’s entrance. “Isn’t she pretty?” Later, when actor Quincy Amorer appeared, the woman turned to her friend and said knowingly, “Ooo! He’s a player.”
At intermission, I wanted to ask the woman about her comments. Did she understand that both I and the actors could hear her? Did she not care? What was prompting these unremarkable remarks? Did they help her enjoy her experience? I should add that it was clearly not her first time at the theatre: she was clearly a subscriber enjoying her usual Saturday night seats (Saturday night at a subscription theatre like Centaur is a world unto itself and entering it is like going into a secret meeting of the Free Masons - but I’ll discuss that another time).
I kept silent but it got me thinking about the interaction of audiences in the theatre, a topic explored recently by the Globe and Mail’s Kate Taylor. Taylor’s intriguing article explores the evolution of theatrical etiquette and she points out that silence during a performance is a relatively new phenomenon born around the turn of the 20th century. Now it’s a hundred years later and we seem to be returning to an earlier model, when theatre was as much about social interaction as it was about the show itself.
“We want them to pay $12 to $14 to come into an auditorium and watch a movie,” said Miles. “But they’ve become accustomed to controlling their own existence.”
The phenomenon isn’t restricted to the theatre. Movie theatres are encountering the problem too, such that last week Amy Miles, CEO of Regal Entertainment, admitted her company was considering easing up on anti-texting policies. Regal Entertainment is one of the largest movie theatre chains in the USA. “We want them to pay $12 to $14 to come into an auditorium and watch a movie,” said Miles. “But they’ve become accustomed to controlling their own existence.” This comment is echoed in Taylor’s article, which quoted a young man who said “sitting in the dark unable to talk to my friends either in person or virtually is not my idea of a good time.”
Purists like myself might argue that theatre’s very appeal is that it is a haven from the technological age, but even I have to admit that this traditional view may be headed the way of the dinosaur. Entertainment is reaching an intriguing moment in its evolution: it has become largely interactive, at least in terms of being able to immediately discuss your thoughts on what you’re seeing: consider the tweets and Facebook updates that happen during the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards. Despite attempts by theatres and cinemas to keep things relatively tech-free, people aren’t taking kindly to being asked to ignore their smartphones, which in today’s age is akin to being told “Shut up until intermission.”
One also has to recognize the great conundrum for artists of the modern theatre. More then ever before, actors must decide whether or not to respond to what is happening around them. Already, the theatre world is rife with anecdotal evidence about artists who have chastised a disrespectful audience. As for producers, they find themselves in the unenviable position of wanting to attract a new audience even as they expect the younger crowd to follow older rules of etiquette.
we are reaching a point when all theatres will have to make a decision one way or another
So which way to go? Should theatres adapt to growing social trends or should they maintain their traditional rules? I would argue we are reaching a point when all theatres will have to make a decision one way or another. In trying to straddle some middleground, companies are only succeeding in creating tension between audiences who, like me, prefer a traditional night at the theatre and those who, like my seat companion at Centaur, prefer a more social experience.
In the same way restaurants were once divided into smoking and non-smoking sections, it may be that theatres will have to divide their crowds as well, a trend already in motion with the creation of the unfortunately named “tweet seats”. But it may be that the auditoriums themselves will also have to be split based on the sort of audience they hope to attract. If a company wants to appeal to the modern crowd, let them install tweet seats and encourage a new theatrical etiquette to flourish. But if they want to remain traditional, then we might as well insist that all audiences check their technology at the gate – and not be afraid to give ushers permission to show a chatty audience member to the door..