The Playgoer: Playgoer's Rules of Playgoing

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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Playgoer's Rules of Playgoing

You thought attending the theatre was entertainment? It's hard work! But if you abide by the following proscriptions, you will make playgoing pleasanter for you and all around you.

First, dinner.  Always, always eat near the theatre.  I mean, one-block-radius near. There is no more stressful 15 minutes for the serious theatregoer than the time between realizing it's 7:45 and you haven't gotten your check yet and that moment when you are finally, safely ushered to that seat. It's challenging enough to accomplish this feat when you're down the block. But when you have to negotiate five blocks of heavy Time Square pedestrian traffic? Worse, imagine the poor soul who has gotten fleeced into dinner uptown?  You might as well have just sold those tickets on StubHub, pal.

I know this isn't going to make theatre any more appealing to those who already see it as a chore, but...Going to the theatre is in many ways like air travel. Getting there is often the hardest part (especially in a cab), but you have to get there on time. It will take off without you. And , unlike the movies, you can't just wait around for the next show. (Not without paying a pretty price, at least. Neither business is in the habit of giving refunds just because you were late.)

The Dinner Rule plus the Airport Rule together lead to a third rule: do whatever you can to have the tickets--your "boarding pass"--in your hand before dinner. Aside from getting them mailed to you--worth the fee--today you can sometimes even print them at home (yes, like the boarding pass). Otherwise, go pick them up from the box office before dinner. Of course, in order to do that you need to be eating nearby. See Rule 1.

Another (unfortunate) comparison to airplanes is the claustrophobic seating. Both spaces try to pack as many bodies into their finite square footage as possible. So therefore: no carry-on luggage, please. You'll have room on your lap for a coat and/or a purse, but not much else. (And, worse than a plane, no overhead.) If you are unavoidably stuck with a messenger bag, backpack, or shopping bag... underneath the seat! Believe me, there is room under there. (You'll just have trouble standing up because the seat won't flip up.) This is not just to be considerate to your neighbors, who may want to pass you from time to time. This is for your own good. You don't want to sit through a three-hour play submerged in enough gear for a hiking party. Especially if that includes bags that crinkle or crackle. Paper or plastic? Neither!

Obviously this means no big shopping sprees immediately pre-theatre. This may be tough for tourists who go from one "event" to another and don't see the inside of their hotel rooms till midnight. But, tough. Plan the shopping for another day. This is theatre, dammit! (Or see a matinee.)

Yes, coatcheck rooms should theoretically solve this problem. But, seriously, when was the last time you checked something at the theatre?  I gather Broadway houses still have them. But can you imagine the lines?  Still, if they're an option, go ahead and use them. Just be prepared to be the first one there (super-early) and the last one out.

Speaking of "baggage" you tow to the seat... This may surprise you, but there is no rule that you must hold your Playbill in your hand throughout the performance. In fact, please don't. By all means look at it before curtain, but once the show starts, put it away. If you have a bag, it goes in there.  Otherwise your lap--or even the floor!--will do fine. You see, if you hold onto it, the greater the chance you will...well, do something with it. You might drop it. (Which in some spaces makes some noise.) You might start flipping through it, consciously or not. (More noise.) And, worst of all, god forbid, you might start reading it. During the performance. Yeah. Not cool.

Food and beverage: It used to just not be allowed. But now many theatres are so dependent on "concessions" so of course, you may bring that $6 coke to your seat, sir/madam! So we need some ground rules. First, to the theatres: no ice, dudes! I mean, really. Also, please do not sell Peanut M & M's, Jaw Breakers, or any other candy that requires severe mastication. (And don't sell them in little cardboard boxes in which the stray Goobers rattle around!) But even when it comes to smuggling in, audiences need to be careful, too. Many are in the habit of toting plastic water bottles without a second thought, for example. But then they spend the whole performance squeezing that plastic every time they go for a sip. Glass or aluminum may be heavier, but they're quieter.

As for food, there are some foods that are smuggle-appropriate. Obviously, the theatre is not the place to break out your doggie bag of ribs, lo mein, or osso buco.  One of my go-to, no-time-for-dinner fallbacks is the simple bagel and cream cheese. That's just cream cheese, no extras. You can grab one at any deli near the theatre (for just two or three bucks, mind you), wrapped in simple cellophane. Throw out the paper bag and stick in your tote or coat pocket. It's the perfect stealth-sandwich because it's doesn't fall apart, doesn't crunch (no toasting on the bagel) , and you can quietly tear little bites off with your hand if you must sneak a munch. Better yet, eat half just before curtain and half at intermission.

Drinks? Personally I'm a coffee drinker so to maintain my caffeine levels (and who can get through some of today's shows without caffeine?) I like to carry in my bag one little Starbucks "Doubleshot" espresso can. (Or the Illy version.) If you buy it just before the show (many delis now carry this, too) and stash it in your bag or pocket, it will stay reasonably chilled through intermission, when you'll need it. And you can drink it down in two or three sips, so you won't have to worry about storing an open can. (This solves a major problem of intermission "house coffee"--it takes you forever to wait in line to get a cup, then it's too hot to drink, then intermission is over before you've had a sip. And then they don't even let you take it to the seat!  Yes, I'm looking at you BAM...)

Speaking of caffeine, an even better "delivery system" is chocolate espresso beans. I mean, it's coffee and chocolate! I often carry a small pouch around to any "marathon" performances. (It's a long day's journey into night indeed without them, let me tell you...) Many Starbucks have these, too.  But if you're a real Playgoer and you know you'll need a steady supply, go to Trader Joe's and bring home the bulk size tub, from which you can then routinely transfer a handful to a plastic baggie.  How many should you take? People will respond differently to the caffeine kick, but I try not to have more than five at a time.  So having a dozen or so regularly on you (per person, of course) should do you.

Finally, we come to the really delicate subject. Bathroom breaks. It is my sworn goal never to have to use a theatre bathroom. (In fact, it is my goal never to leave the seat once seated, but that's only for diehards.) If you can hold it in, going after the show is a much better proposition. Because during pre-curtain or intermission, there will always be a line. It will always be small. You will never have time. And I'm not just talking about the Ladies', though that is always exponentially worse, and facilities may be even more off-putting. (Especially at many of our Off-Off venues.)

Naturally, the worst scenario is having to go during the performance when you do not have an aisle seat. So barring a medical or ageing condition, this you really want to avoid. (And if that's your condition, get that aisle seat.)

So what to do? It's "Nature's Call" after all, you say. Well each man or woman knows his or her own bladder best. But at the risk of over-sharing, here's my formula: If you're attending an evening show, don't drink any beverage after lunch. Then make sure to relieve yourself just before dinner. (Definitely before you take even a sip of water at the restaurant.) Then, hopefully, you should be good till 10 or 11pm.

(Ah, isn't this what a theatre blog is for? Jill Dolan may be alright, but, dammit, if this kind of insight does not deserve a George Jean Nathan Award, what does!)

I haven't even touched on the numerous noise-offenses we encounter every night from our fellow audiences. The talkers. The toe-tappers. The "repeaters" (reflexively echoing every joke that pleases one). The "breathers" (heavy, that is). The sleepers and snorers (see "caffeine," above). And, then, my favorite, the clothes-fondlers. Often men in wide corduroy who love the feeling of it through their fingers a little too much. Also beware of acrylic coats or leather pants.

One special circle of hell is reserved for not just talkers but that subset who keep talking after the curtain has risen but before any dialogue begins. So hear me now: just because no one on stage is speaking yet does not mean the play hasn't started.  Sometimes that "moving around" the actors do is important, too.

You may have noticed I have not even mentioned cell phones yet. Need I? It's 2013 now. I say if you still haven't learned by now how to turn it off, how to keep it off, how to make sure it doesn't ring again when you have a voice mail, how to not have an excruciatingly poor-taste ring for when it does go off...then we'll just have to take it away from you. That's right. There's no Second Amendment in this case. License and register them, I say, with full background checks. Because in the theatre, my friends, they are lethal weapons.

I know some may say: Playgoer, you are so bourgeois. These codes of social behavior to keep us tethered to our seats, in the dark, only looking forward, uncommunicative with our fellow spectators are, in fact, only a relatively recent trend historically to deaden the live-performance experience, all in the name of some unattainable and dubious standard of "realism." Why not liberate the audience, let us behave like the social creatures we are--such as at sporting events or rock concerts, where we truly participate and respond to the action.

To which I say: yes, these are entirely socially constructed norms of behavior, specific to Western middle-class realist aesthetics and are, indeed, doomed to die out when our techno-indulgent marketplace finally bans silence and long attention spans from our culture forever.

But until then? While we're still paying exorbitant amounts to hear what Scarlet Johansson is saying on stage? Please keep your cell phones off and your Playbills on the floor. Dammit.

(What would you add to The Rules?)


Dr. Cashmere said...

One pernicious trend I've noticed is the proliferation of folks leaving their cellphones on and then taking a peek at the glowing screens every few minutes. To check the time? Text message traffic? Their twitter feeds?

I have no idea. But just because your cellphone is silent doesn't mean it isn't a distraction. In a dark room, it's almost impossible for the rest of us not to look toward the glowing mass in our peripheral vision.

Don't just put the phone on vibrate. Put it away.

Art said...

Yes! The phone on vibrate problem is becoming an epidemic.

Turn it off! Or, for God's sake, on silent.

Almost every show I attend lately has at least one two minute stretch of bzzzzzz....bzzzzzzz.....bzzzzzz.

The perpetrator seems to make no attempt to stop it. I wonder if they are imagining that the vibrate function can only be heard by them?

Anonymous said...

This is fantastic. I agree with every point you made. (But then, don't get me started on subway etiquette...)

I third the "phone on vibrate" problem. Vibrate is NOT silent. Turn it OFF, people.

I would also add: if you're in one of those tight Broadway houses, and you need to let someone get by you to take your seat, please STAND. Just shifting your legs to the side isn't going to do it. Especially when your bag is at your feet.