ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Two Questions About Theatregoer Etiquette

Ask Playbill.com   ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Two Questions About Theatregoer Etiquette
 
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F. Murray Abraham, as Shylock, talks on his cell phone in a production of The Merchant of Venice.
F. Murray Abraham, as Shylock, talks on his cell phone in a production of The Merchant of Venice. Photo by Amy Arbus

Question: What can be done about those rude and thoughtless theatergoers who insist on texting during a performance? The glow from their devices is annoying and distracting. We are accustomed to being asked before a performance to turn off cell phones, etc., and we are grateful for that reminder. Perhaps the pre-performance announcement should also include something like "and please do not text during performance as it is distracting to other patrons who have paid good money to enjoy the show." How can we make this happen and stop the infernal screen glow from these self-absorbed individuals?!—Susan A., White Plains, NY

Every theatre on Broadway, and many Off-Broadway, begins the performance with an announcement, warning them that the recording or photographing of the show is illegal and "strictly prohibited," and advising them to turn off their cell phones and unwrap any hard candies. The orders are so familiar that they routinely draw titters from the crowd. Yet, the audience somehow still needs to hear them, because there's always someone who fails to heed the call.

While every regular theatregoer with a brain and a conscience probably knows by now that the use of cell phones during a performance is frowned upon, many of these same people haven't received the message that texting during a show is equally offensive and distracting to performers and fellow theatregoers. They type away, imagining that, because the activity is silent, they're not bothering anybody—apparently not realizing that they are bathing the immediate area in a white glow. (How they manage to be texting when they've been told to turn off their cells is a conundrum.)

The announcements that come before each separate production vary. They are agreed upon jointly by the theatre and the production occupying it, according to a longtime Broadway house manager who asked not to be identified by name. The house manager said that his theatre has, for the past few shows, warned audiences that they should not text during the show. But not every theatre does this yet. "Maybe it's time we all add texting to all the pre-show announcements," he said. "People don't seem to realize we can see the light of the screen." He added that when he or the ushers in his theatre see people texting, they politely ask them to stop.

But what if the ushers and house manager in the theatre that you are sitting in aren't taking action? Should you take the scolding into your own hands? We turned to Daniel Post Senning, the great-great-grandson of etiquette expert Emily Post and co-author of "The 18th Edition of Emily Post's Etiquette," for advice. "It's really tricky," said Senning. "The A-plus answer is it's up to the theatre, and they should take responsibility for them. That can be with an announcement at the start, which are common. Texting should be part of that announcement. The idea that texting is the safe alternative to the cell phone call is out there. But it's incredibly rude. This is not an open question—it's distracting to the players and the audience."

Still, added Senning, "It's usually not good manners to correct someone else's behavior. You don't have the standing to do it. If the behavior is very egregious, you can maybe mention it. But people don't like being told what to do. We don't advise you challenge someone. Tell someone who has standing in the theatre [like the house manager or an usher]. If they're unwilling to do it, then you're in a situation where you can ask for your money back. You're not powerless. You're still a consumer."

Question: I went to a showing at my local movie theatre this week, and the gentleman sitting "next" to me (there was one empty seat between us) snored pretty much the entire time, except for every few minutes when it seemed that his snoring would wake him up for a moment or two. I was thoroughly irritated, to say the least. I spent a good deal of time wanting to reach over and smack the guy, and if I'd been sitting behind him, I'm pretty sure I'd have "accidentally" kicked the back of his seat, at the very least. So it got me wondering: What is the proper etiquette for dealing with snoring audience members sitting next to you at a theatre?—Cassandra W. Bettendorf, Iowa

For this question, we again turned to Daniel Post Senning, and got some very similar counsel.

Again, he advised seeking out the help of someone in the theatre, someone with "standing," to address the situation. However, "You might be able to give them a nudge and say they'd nodded off, " he said. They may appreciate the gesture. Senning called this the "broccoli" rule. When someone has a bit of broccoli stuck between their teeth, they are almost always grateful to the person who points it out and save them public embarrassment.

However, added Senning, "You want to be very careful touching someone who's a stranger. How are you going to do it? It can be a little fraught." If the person keeps falling asleep and snoring after the initial nudging, it's best to alert the management.

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