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Carnival Barkers in the Arts
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
Criticizing poor cell phone etiquette is rapidly becoming a pointless exercise today, similar to crying about the weather or complaining about the earth's gravitational pull. Egregious cell phone behavior is simply a fact of life now, and no amount of public indignation will ever get that genie back in the bottle. I used to be able to shock friends with horrific accounts of cell phone idiocy — meatheads talking loudly in the elevator, in the public bathroom stall, at the movie theatre — but now I'm resigned to the fact that nothing is too surprising any more. I've noted the sheepish looks on friends' faces when I relate the stories, a look that says they've probably done something similar.
The most outrageous example I've experienced happened during the run of a play I was directing — twenty minutes into the first act, a brutally loud cell phone pealed out, startling everybody in the room. Astonishingly, the guy takes the call, and without even attempting to lower his voice, carries out an inane, twenty-second conversation that is perfectly audible to everyone around him. "Hey, what's up? No, I'm at a play right now. No, not too bad, it's going pretty well. I'm guessing two, two and a half hours. All right. I'll call you around 10:30. Great. See you."
At intermission the stage manager approached the guy and politely asked him to refrain from cell phone use, which was a considerably more rational response than what I was proposing. Don't tell him to turn his phone off, I said, and don't throw him out. Just kill him. Kill him and stuff his body in the dumpster. And don't worry, no jury in the world will convict us. They'll thank us. The stage manager, thankfully, ignored my modest proposal and got the guy to shut the phone off.
Fortunately, the guy didn't order a pizza during the second act and so the remainder of the show proceeded without incident. But the damage was done. The cast was tentative after the disruption, wary of the audience, and the audience picked up on their nervousness and got nervous themselves. And when that happens in theatre, you're sunk. You've lost the audience and they ain't coming back. The rest of the night the audience sat coldly in the theatre, on their hands, barely responding, and any chance for a good night of theatre was utterly ruined.
What further angered me about the guy's rudeness (as if I needed another reason) was that it probably convinced any theatre director in the audience that pre-show curtain speeches are thoroughly justified. If you've been to a play or a concert in Fort Wayne, you've heard the speeches--at 8 o'clock, instead of entertainment, the director ambles out into a spotlight and begins talking directly to the audience. Invariably, he thanks you, reminds you of the next show, cracks a few jokes, recognizes the sponsors, pushes the subscription series, tells you to turn off all electronic devices. The speeches can be brief or excruciatingly labored. When they're finished, the director thanks you once again and leaves to applause, as the lights go down and the show begins. It is a standard practice in Fort Wayne and in community theaters around the country and it absolutely has to stop. Now.
I fully recognize that arts organizations and not-for-profits are up against it in the current economic climate and that they have to fight for every dollar. I agree with the idea that aggressive marketing policies are necessary and that attaining corporate sponsorships and subscription sales are crucial for the lifeblood of any arts group. Got it. When I've already paid for my ticket, though, and I'm sitting in your theatre at 7:45, the last thing I want is for someone to try and sell me something else. I'm already supporting your theatre; I'm here. Isn't that enough? If I like the show, I'll come back, but please know that no amount of carnival barking will convince me to see the next show if the current one stinks.
What's annoying about the curtain speeches is that every bit of information conveyed — every bit of it — is available in the program you're holding in your hands. I don't know how anybody could miss a subscription packet in a program — those things tumble out like perfume-scented postcards fall out of Vanity Fair. And I think most people read their programs before the play begins and are therefore fully aware of what's on deck at the theatre. And as for corporate sponsors, I can't help but feel it must be embarrassing to get that pitiful, half-hearted applause from an audience that's already frustrated because the damn show hasn't started yet.
Aesthetically, the curtain speech drives me crazy because it destroys any momentum that the pre-show has been exerting on the audience. For most directors, the play doesn't begin with the curtain, it begins when you walk in the theatre — the music, the house lights, the way the set is shrouded or exposed. A good director will start telling a story as soon as you take your seat, and the expectations will rise as the clock ticks toward curtain. The sudden appearance of a curtain speaker throws ice water on any pre-show effect that the creative team was trying to build and forces the artists to start cold, from scratch, at curtain.
The renowned theatre director Peter Brooks once said that the greatest sin for an ensemble was to waste the audience's time. The fear of this inadequacy is what compels the actor to work harder than imaginable, to push himself as much as he can, so that his exertions will pass the harsh test that a demanding audience presents. When you waste an audience's time--even for a five minute curtain speech--you erode the good will that all audiences begin with. And remember, you're not just wasting five minutes, you're wasting five minutes times the audience number. You're wasting 5 x 600 people, or 5 x 1400 people, or 5 x 100 people. Audiences hate waste, and the cumulative effect leaves them dissatisfied, even if they can't explain why.
I know this seems like a tiny thing to bitch about, but I believe curtain speeches are counter-productive to any theatre's goals, and that they'd be better served by simply letting the audience be. As for the necessity of cell phone reminders… well, the moron who disrupted my play heard the curtain speech and blithely ignored it. Some people are beyond redemption.