Sea Change

So, here’s what I know, concerning one of a few things that the New York theater community is currently in a tizzy over.  During the October 12 performance of the Broadway show Hadestown, one of the performers, Lillias White, stopped the show to reprimand an audience member for a device she was holding.  She thought that the object in question was a recording device of some kind, and that she was being illegally filmed.  It turned out, however, that the  audience member was hearing impaired, and the object was an assisted listening device which the theater itself had provided.  Being relatively new to the company (she took over for Andre de Shields, in his Tony-winning role), she hadn’t been made aware of those devices.  The full story can be found here; as stated, apologies have been issued to the audience member in question.  That hasn’t stopped the overall theatrical community from screaming bloody murder, howling in outrage because an audience member’s need for accommodation was met with such a humiliating reaction.  The cry has gone out – how dare a performer, no matter how accomplished, treat a member of the public in such a fashion?

And as I read these posts and missives, I keep wondering the same thing – when the hell did this happen?

You see, a generation ago (I shudder to write it out in such a way, but the math checks out), the theater-going public celebrated theatrical icons who told off audience members.  Not journeymen performers like myself, of course; I couldn’t possibly get away with breaking character and telling an audience member to put a cell phone away.  (Heck, I didn’t break character during a show where we literally set the stage on fire.) But in those early days of smartphones, about twenty years ago or so?  When beeps could go off at any given moment, and the possibility of surreptitious recordings of theatrical performances became a genuine possibility, and the old standards of theatrical etiquette began slipping away?  Titans like Brian Dennehy and Patti LuPone were notorious for castigating errant audience members.  It didn’t happen all the time, of course, but every once in a while the word of some fearsome harrangue would spread like wildfire.  It may be urban legend, but I distinctly remember hearing tell of these luminaries being cheered when they gave a dressing-down to a particularly rude spectator.  Hell, I’m pretty sure some folks bought tickets specifically in the hopes of witnessing the bloodsport.

Now, there is a disturbing element I haven’t mentioned yet, in that there is a seeming racial component to this double standard.  Ms. White is African-American, you see, so it’s hard not to ascribe some deeply distressing motives to people chastising her for her behavior, after celebrating other, very clearly Caucasian performers.  And yet, so many of the posts I saw after the incident didn’t mention Ms. White’s name at all.  The focus was entirely on the fact that a disabled person was the subject of the tirade, and that this was clearly outrageous.  The framework was entirely on the breach of etiquette – from the performer’s side, not the audience members’.  Which is certainly understandable – the woman was using a device meant to counteract her disability, so she had a legitimate need to use the device.

But how many of the people who were screamed at a generation ago might have had a equally  valid reason for whatever it was that brought on a similar reaction?  More than a few, I imagine.  And would social media be as quick to publicize and vilify a performer who stopped the show to address truly bad behavior in the audience?  I suspect it would – vilification is the coin of the realm these days.

We haven’t fully realized just how much of a sea change is going on.  We’ve collectively decided that the old norms of theater etiquette – once one of the defining aspects of the theatrical experience – is a form of gatekeeping that we’re better off without.  People once praised for being willing to enforce that etiquette are now being attacked. That’s massive.  It doesn’t just affect the audience experience itself, but the norms of professionalism we associate with the theater.  Ultimately, that will extend to the aesthetics of the theater, and even the type of works we decide to write and stage for it.

A few short years ago is indeed a generation ago, and it feels like a lifetime ago.  And this is only just beginning.

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