The 2019 State of the Theater Address

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  • Joseph Verlezza

In years past, the common complaints one heard about “the state of theatre” were primarily about the steep prices that had seemed to rise ever so quickly but then were passed off as just a sign of the times. Other quips that could be heard were concerns about subject matter, nudity, or foul language. Then there was the appearance of scalpers which made ticket availability nonexistent. Perhaps once in a while you were disturbed by a patron whispering to their friend. Or possibly some patrons disliked the deterioration of fashion worn to the theatre with the absence of men in jackets and ties. Remember how people wore their finest to see and be seen? Now sweatpants and a tee shirt are the latest formal wear.  Oh, how we should long for those good old days!

As time marched on, there was the issue of cell phones not being off and ringing during a performance, uncannily at the most inopportune time when complete silence was paramount. Then there came the announcement to please unwrap your candies before the performance as to not disturb your fellow patrons. Now the problem is not the cell phone ringing but the audience member letting it continue, in fear of being found guilty as the source of disruption. Better yet is the culprit that answers the phone and you hear them whisper “I’m in the theater I’ll call you at intermission,” and then usually will forget to turn it off for the second act. Let’s not talk about texting! Has attention span diminished that rapidly? “Breaking News!” You are not that important!

In recent years, it is the clatter of the mega size boxes of candy hawked in the aisles before a performance and at intermission that may distract the audience or actors on stage. It has elevated to Ziploc bags and Tupperware containers filled with a variety of treats to satisfy every pallet. Then comes the smell of tuna salad polluting the air from the sandwich someone is devouring during intermission two rows in front of you. It is baffling that a person cannot abstain from eating or drinking for a mere two hours or so. I suppose I should not mention the bottles of Champagne delivered to a patron’s seat in an ice bucket accompanied by two glasses before the show started so they could imbibe during the performance while sitting in the second-row center? No way would that possibly disturb fellow audience members, let alone the actors on stage!

Rude patrons fan the flames that seem to have burned the book of theater etiquette that was a common denominator among theater audiences for years. It is bad enough that most of the old historic theaters have not been updated, so the rake of the seating provides a less than adequate view of the stage, especially if you are short or are placed behind a very tall person. Yes, we as a nation have managed to grow taller and much bigger than our ancestors. Just be sure to bring a pair of scissors so you can give a free haircut to the patron who piles hair, six to twelve inches high on top of their head, and proud as a peacock that they look so pretty. You can save them the price of going to the salon. It may also be used to cut the hat off the person sitting in front of you that was raised in a barn. Oh you can certainly ask for a booster seat so you can then block the view of the person behind you. Remember the ticket you purchased is non-refundable, so you might have paid a hefty price, with the average ticket rising well above one hundred dollars last year, and actually have a partially obstructed view. There is NO guarantee when it comes to audience Bill of Rights.

Charge your phone before you go to the theatre if you think that your battery will be drained before the end of the day. There was an incident of a patron hopping up on the stage to plug his phone into an outlet on the set. Not only have audiences become rude but it is compounded by their seeming stupidity. At an Off-Broadway house I witnessed a patron sprawled across the aisle charging her cell phone plugged into a wall outlet. No one bothered her until the director, who was in the audience on opening night, walked down the aisle to his seat and exclaimed, “Are you kidding,” and sought out an usher. The annoying part is that they have no clue and believe it is acceptable behavior.

What ever happened to arriving at the theater at least ten minutes early so you can use the facilities, find your seat and get comfortable without disturbing the audience? Perhaps this may solve the problem of seemingly endless lines at the restroom during intermission. Yes it was common practice to hold the curtain at most five minutes for latecomers who experienced delays but as the years have gone by management has trained patrons to arrive late knowing the curtain will be held as much as fifteen minutes.  Rather than keeping them at the back of the theater or in the lobby watching a monitor, they are regally escorted to their seats in the middle of a performance. Is it really that difficult to arrive on time? Let’s also give tribute to the seat mongers who hunt for a better or closer seat like it were the Holy Grail. Or for that matter sit anywhere they please until they are asked to move and escorted to the correct seat. The latest occurrence are the musical theater junkies that claim excellent seats and believe they are at a concert, spontaneously waving their arms in the air to praise their idol. Do they even know or for that matter care someone is seated behind them? Don’t get me going about audience members who talk back to the actors out loud obviously thinking they are in their living room and no one can hear them. I suppose that goes right along with taking your shoes off and stretching your stocking feet into the isle so you can settle in and get comfortable.

I imagine that it is just the decline in morality and respect that is influencing society outside the theatre that is slowly beginning to creep in. The theatre was always considered a pleasant escape from the troubles of the outside world and that may still be true. Too true. Recently backfiring motorcycles driving through the theatre district in Times Square, sounding like gun shots, instigated crowds fearing for their lives and seeking safety, to bang on theatre doors, screaming to let them in only to disrupt the performances on stage. It is a disturbing thought that the unsettling disruption that is seeping into the core of humanity has found a way to slowly infiltrate what at one time was an escape from all the troubles of day to day living and destroy a safe haven. It is unsettling.

Yes, unfortunately the state of the theater has become a disaster and it does not look like there is a rescue team on the way to clean up and revert back to a civilized manner. What happened to the days you could actually sit in the dark, sometimes with over a thousand people and enjoy seeing and hearing exactly what was happening on stage, without an inkling of it becoming a miserable experience. The excessive monetary price is only a part of the exploitation. Audience behavior is the evidence that integrity and decorum have become extinct and the respect for art, culture and performance is slowly being expunged from the human condition. The fact that it is condoned by those with the authority to stop it, most likely for monetary reasons, is nefarious. This is the state of the theatre.