Down in Front!: What's up with all the rude people at the theater?

Did you happen to see Patti LuPone last April when she appeared at the Fox Theatre in concert with Mandy Patinkin? If you did, give yourself a pat on the back, because you were part of a well-behaved audience. You made it through that entire (rather odd) evening without La LuPone chastising you for rudeness.

Twice in the past few months — first on Broadway during a climactic moment in Gypsy, then again during her solo concert act in Las Vegas — LuPone stopped the show to berate members of the audience for misconduct. After her first outburst, LuPone was widely cheered for standing up for the rights of put-upon actors everywhere. The second time, even some of her earlier supporters thought she'd gone overboard. Readers commenting on a New York Times story weighed in pro and con, compelling LuPone to justify her action. "This has been going on for 30 years since I starred in Evita," she claimed in her spirited defense.

I don't think LuPone needs to defend herself at all. Would that more performers stood up for themselves as she did. And often. Rudeness in the theater should not be tolerated. Actors are not sales clerks; theirs is not a profession where the customer is always right. It is a privilege to be in the presence of a gifted actor, yet too often they are treated with disdain and even contempt. I am especially incensed by an elderly woman who attends opening nights at New Jewish Theatre. Her silver hair is puffed out like cotton candy, and she uses a walker. She sits in the first row, where the stage light tends to spill onto her. When she thinks the play is winding down, with numbing insensitivity she slowly rises and makes her way to the exit — thus ruining the performance for all. I often fantasize about kicking that walker right out from under her, but of course I haven't. Yet.

Ask any actor, and you will hear a horror story. No wonder actors so often say that the most gratifying part of the theater experience is rehearsal — before the audience arrives. I still shudder when I recall the opening night of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Rep. Prior to the performance, Rep board members were treated to a party at which liquids flowed liberally. The entire row behind me was mostly filled with board members who loudly complained during the performance that they had to leave the party to endure this dreary play.

Adults should know better, but what about kids? Student audiences can be rough. When I worked at the American Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut, matters got especially ugly during a student matinee of Othello for inner-city students. Early in Act One Moses Gunn, the St. Louis-born actor who played the Moor, stopped the show to complain about the excessive talking. Then after Othello murdered Desdemona, some students began to chant, "Kill whitey." Gunn walked to the edge of the stage, tore off the chain around his neck bearing Othello's badge of office and hurled it to the floor. "You do the goddamn play," he spat at the audience and then strode into the wings (leaving the actress who played the recently deceased Desdemona stranded on her bed in full view of the audience). He did not return.

Yes, it can get contentious out there. Which is why two years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts, who is also a frequent actor at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, published a blog post on the Steppenwolf website in which — after gratefully acknowledging that 99 percent of audiences are "thoughtful, energetic and respectful" — he let fly at the Talkers, the Cell Phone Users, the Psychos, the Unwrappers ("Do you actually believe that by unwrapping your shit SLOWLY you're making less noise?"), the Program Readers, the Coughers, the Inappropriate Laughers, the Jewelry Janglers, the Stage Invaders ("Don't put your feet on the stage") and the Early Exiters ("we see you storming up the aisle, and we hate you"). And we have them all in St. Louis.

It's a devastatingly funny piece, but it's also part hyperbole. For theater is not about hate; rather, it is an act of love. So as a new theater season officially begins this week with Amadeus at the Rep, let's try to love the actors a little more. They have enough on their minds without a discourteous audience adding unnecessary turmoil to their lives.

 
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