What's the matter with kids today? Broadway struggles with audience etiquette

The Great White Way tries to find the sweet spot between conventional courtesy and constant connectivity.

Joan Marcus/Philip Rinaldi Publicity/AP
In this 2015 photo provided by Lincoln Center Theater and Philip Rinaldi Publicity, Patti LuPone (l.) and Michael Urie perform in a scene from the play, 'Shows for Days,' at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in New York. It's been a month of bad behavior among theatergoers in New York, including a teenager's attempt to charge his phone in a dummy outlet on a stage and an evening when LuPone caught someone texting during her show and swiped the phone out of the patron's hand.

Does Broadway need a breather from bad behavior?

The last few years have seen a rising tension over misplaced manners in theater shows, with the most recent incidents involving a teenager who climbed onstage to charge his phone during a performance and star Patti LuPone snatching a cellphone from a texting spectator’s hands.

The issue is one of etiquette in an age of constant connectivity. While some performers and patrons say that smartphones and perpetual networking are the ruin of live theater’s immersive experience, others are calling for a more open perspective that seeks to educate, rather than berate, an audience for whom interactivity takes precedence over theater decorum.

“We have to be very careful that we let people know what’s appropriate without pushing them away,” said Broadway producer Ken Davenport, who allowed some “tweet seats” – areas where audience members can follow a play-by-play thread and share their comments on a show – in back rows during a performance of “Godspell” a few years ago.

As the age-old medium of theater struggles to catch up to the rapid pace of technological change, it’s no surprise that the standards of courtesy fail to stay in stride.

“Change in etiquette usually comes slowly, just as changes come slowly in the dictionary,” Amy Vanderbilt wrote in her book on manners, published in 1957.

In addition, “technology has scrambled the lines between public and private,” which in turn has “fundamentally changed how we expect people to behave in social spaces once governed by sometimes elaborate rules,” Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott wrote earlier this year.

“The nature of those rules – are they simply the arbitrary residue of class and snobbery, or are they pragmatic guidelines for ensuring everyone can hear, see and enjoy the experience? – continue unabated, but with a twist,” he continued.

Lewis Friedland, a University of Wisconsin sociology and communications professor, calls it an “erosion in people’s norms of public space.”

The result is a cadre of actors and long-time theatergoers vexed with the habits of the perpetually plugged-in audience, and particularly with the ever-present smartphone.

“If you’re onstage, you notice every single person who’s texting,” Will Swenson, who has starred in such classics as “Les Misérables” and “Hair,” told The Associated Press.

“The second that a light pops on in the audience, it’s impossible to not say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m in a theater, and someone is out there not paying attention to my best efforts to tell a story,’ ” he added.

Yet the advent of the digital age has also been a boon to Broadway. Shows on the Great White Way attracted a record 13.1 million patrons last season, up 7.3 percent from the year before – and part of that has to do with the theater industry’s efforts to reach out to new fans through social media.

“A show like ‘Newsies’ was built completely off of social media, and that’s why it was so successful,” Disney theatrical producer Tom Schumacher told WABC-TV New York. “Within one day of announcing that ‘Newsies’ had come to Broadway, we had 85,000 Facebook friends.”

So while newcomers may not know the rules despite advisories, some in the industry say it may be time to lighten up – a little – around theater etiquette.

“We don’t want people thinking, ‘I’ve got to memorize a bunch of rules,’ ” Goldstar CEO Jim McCarthy said. “There is one: Don’t ruin it for everybody else.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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