Text Me Later (Or: How Theater Isn't Baseball)
It's the glow that kills the atmosphere: brightness surrounded by a seeping luminescence. In the darkness of the theater, it draws the peripheral vision of even the most determinedly focused spectators.
The source? Some jerk, text-messaging during the show.
Banning texting at the theater is a crucial extension of the prohibition against cell-phone use during performances, but I'd never heard a pre-show announcement forbidding it until last weekend, when I went to see the stageFARM's "The Gingerbread House" at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in the West Village. When I wrote about it the other day on True/Slant, saying that if a device glows in the dark, it shouldn't be turned on during the performance, I didn't expect to hear someone I respect arguing for the other side, let alone suggesting general codes of behavior at the theater need some rethinking. Then I opened my e-mail.
"I'm not sure I care if people are texting or not," wrote a friend who works in theater, adding that he'd once caught students texting each other about the show during a weekday matinee. "That's not a bad thing."
I begged to differ, and thus began our little e-mail brawl, his part of which he's given me permission to quote here.
For my friend, texting has been a recent topic of staff discussions, in which people have been divided about how to deal with it.
"Why are we so precious about the way in which we view theater?" he asked me. "Does it always have to be quietly and in the dark? Why can't theater be more like baseball? I can talk, eat, hear screaming voices, see people moving around and watch the game all at the same time -- and not really miss anything. I think we have to shake things up a bit. Stop demanding human beings -- coughing, fidgeting, farting, eating human beings -- be themselves when watching a play."
I don't know about anyone else, but if the people around me at the theater were coughing, fidgeting, farting, and eating, I'd vacate the premises pretty quickly and not worry about blocking their view of the stage as I brushed by. No, people can't always help coughing. Sometimes they have to shift in their seats, too. But individuals who are being uninhibitedly themselves are rarely people strangers want to be around. That's why etiquette exists. It's why babies, who come into the world as squalling barbarians, are (one hopes) civilized by their parents as quickly as possible, and it's why those of us who don't want 3-year-old Titan lobbing a roll at us across the restaurant are not huge fans of laissez-faire parenting.
What, then, is precious about not wanting to be bothered by other people in the audience at the theater? If they're alone in their living room, watching a DVD, they can make all the noise they want, and when they miss something, they can rewind. And if they play that DVD while paying no attention to it whatsoever, the actors won't be the least bit affected by their behavior.
Telling this to my friend only returned him to his baseball analogy. "I've always wondered why actors get so annoyed when someone coughs or says something in the audience, while baseball players stay focused even when people around them are screaming, 'Get your beer here!' and a ball is flying at them at 95 mph."
But the analogy is flawed -- partly because of differing expectations at the ballpark and at the theater, but for other reasons as well.
We can watch sports on TV, whether at home or at a bar, with the sound on or off; we can listen to a play-by-play on the radio, never catching a glimpse of the game; we can watch at the ballpark, eyes on the field, ears on the announcer; or we can be at the ballpark, listening to the radio play-by-play and keeping our eyes not on the field but on the Jumbotron. Sound and visuals are separable, and immersion with rapt attention to all facets isn't required in order to get a full experience.
Theater doesn't work that way, not even when we fall in love with a musical by listening to the cast recording before we ever see it live.
When someone's gone to a play, we don't ask her afterward, "Who won? What was the score?" We ask, "How was it?" In order for her to know the answer to that, attention must be paid. And it's a kind of attention that demands more effort of the audience than passive forms of entertainment like movies, TV or sports. It's a cliché of theater to say that actors get energy from the audience, but they do, and you can feel it in a performance. An audience focused on a glowing screen isn't going to hear that line land, isn't going to see the fluid movement of an actor's body, isn't going to register an eloquent shift in the lighting. The performance will be lost on them and, with their concentration elsewhere, something will be lost from the performance.
Most theater is text-based, and understanding the words is paramount. That's true even in musical theater, hordes of foreign tourists on Broadway notwithstanding. In opera, the music takes precedence; in musical theater, as in drama, enunciation is key. But even the most talented multitaskers among us will not be able to take in that language if they're reading and writing text messages during the show. Likewise, the sounds and silences that are built into the experience of movement-based theater will be nothing but background to them.
Not all of this applies, of course, at outdoor theater, where the expectations and behaviors of audiences and artists are not what they are indoors. In the most casual outdoor settings -- the picnic-in-the-park setup, or street theater -- it's perfectly okay to talk, eat, cough and move around. Extraneous noise, whether from a barking dog or an ambulance, is part of the deal.
But cacophony isn't always what we want, or what best serves a play, and there's nothing precious about insisting that an audience be fully present at a performance.
Part of what I find interesting about the stageFARM's godsend of a pre-show announcement is that the company, whose slogan is "We make plays for play-haters," aims itself squarely at "a generation weaned on the immediacy of MySpace and YouTUBE" [sic] and alienated by theater's "cost, pretense, and elitism." If the stageFARM doesn't believe it's necessary to open the texting gates in order to engage its target audience of young people new to theatergoing, why should anyone else? It's not as if the company is enforcing local law by putting the kibosh on texting. While New York City bans the use of cell phones during performances, that 2003 law is limited to making or receiving calls, not texts. The stageFARM has gone a step beyond what's required to actively teach theater etiquette to people who can't be expected to know it.
I understand my friend's delight at discovering that kids were texting each other about the show during a performance. Any youthful excitement about the theater is encouraging. It's the kids' timing that was off, which is what made what they were doing rude. It's entirely possible that they ruined the experience of other first-timers by distracting them from what was going on onstage, and they may have harmed the experience of loyal patrons, too. Whatever they had to say to each other, they could have said later -- at intermission or after the show, in person or via text.
Theater, like so many industries, tends to be a little bit desperate to attract young people, but it needs to be careful about how it does that. It's not helpful to alienate the rest of the audience in order to give free rein to the rude people, even if some of them are young.