Sunday, July 12, 2015

Phones in the Wings

Merchant dressing room. Photo taken with my phone.

There is much chatter in theatre-related media about the behavior of audiences lately.

On Broadway, a man jumped onto a stage and attempted to plug his phone into an outlet on the set. (To his chagrin, the outlet was not real, and if he thought being scolded by security was embarrassing, how he must have felt the next day when the wrath of the internet fell on him.) In a separate incident, Patti Lupone chewed out a patron from the stage because he was "texting" during the performance.

Funny articles are appearing here and there about an allegedly growing sense of anger harbored by actors toward their audience.  That seems silly. There are so many old stories about actors intervening in audience behavior. There's a famous story about John Gielgud stepping to the footlights and addressing a couple of old ladies who were being a bit loud and intoning "" at them, and lots of others. Trinity Rep's audiences have known for many years that the actors will not hesitate to engage in direct interaction with patrons.

When I played Tybalt in Firenze, patrons were served alcohol and aperativi before the show and one night we had a couple of young women rather obnoxiously drunk on a blanket in front of our playing area, one of whom was particularly distracting. After being stabbed in the neck by Romeo, I made sure to lurch forward and die in her lap.

These war stories involving patrons are fun, but meanwhile I keep noticing that backstage behavior seems to be changing, too. Technology is rapidly changing social behaviors and this is going on backstage as well as in the house.

I don't know how it is on Equity stages since I'm no longer in that realm, but where I've worked over the last couple of years actors and crew seem more wedded to their phones even while the show is taking place. In a dressing room, I don't care: look at a magazine, shut your eyes, speed through lines, play Trivia Crack, whatever you do. Dressing room or green room is the right place for that, as long as you can hear what's going on onstage and be ready to do your job. I'm talking about the wings.

At Unto These Hills last year, I would see actors produce their phones from pockets of their costumes and check their screens while walking from one side to another. During one performance, an actor's phone started to ring - in his pocket, onstage. This was the first show where I noticed crew members frequently looking at phones and iPads while a show was going on. They never missed a beat from what I could tell. Aside from the phone that rang in that actor's pocket, the behavior didn't appear to affect what happened onstage.

Or did it? That's the thing about live theatre. The energy and the awareness of the performers (and I include backstage crew in their own way) makes a difference in imperceptible as well as obvious ways. Just as, at a sacrament, when the officiant's attention is elsewhere or divided, you can feel it. You might not put your finger on it but something is off. Zen Master Seung Sahn would have made a splendid theatre director: "When you do something," I can hear him say, "Do it 100 percent!"

Yoshi Oida talks about his preference to be in the wings or even behind the house during performances, in order to pay attention to the audience's responses and mood. (He speaks of "smelling" the audience.) At the Black Box Theatre, where I've been doing most of my work in Las Cruces, there is almost no wing space but there are ways to stay connected with what's happening. Live theatre is social.

We are performing Merchant of Venice in an old proscenium house where there is limited wing space - and several of the younger performers hang out there because the dressing rooms are hot and muggy. And they've got their phones going. We could probably retire the traditional blue clip lamps that light our way, as there is enough light from the phones.

Just so I'm not misunderstood: I don't necessarily equate use of phones with antisocial behavior. I have an iPhone myself and it is handy to have this little computer close by. I communicate with it, read news articles on it, and play chess on it. This is not a curmudgeonly rant about cell phones.

What this is about is different behaviors for different spaces. In this case, green room behaviors spilling into the wings. I was at Trinity before iPhones were a thing. Very good, attentive actors would recreate in the green room during shows. They'd pay attention to the monitor while flipping through a book, relaxing on a sofa, maybe even play a hand of Solitaire. These are ways to decompress during a long show. Card games were a favorite pastime. So were pranks.

When you stepped from the green room into the wings, however, different behaviors kicked in. No one played Solitaire or read People magazine in the wings. The wings were a space for silence, preparation, and full attention on the performance.  No one had to explain this. There were things you did in the green room and things you did in the wings.

The other night, curtain call was nearly delayed. Several actors were in the dressing room. Some on their phones, some just chatting, as you do. It's hard to hear in there - all we have is a crappy baby monitor that the stage manager sometimes forgets to turn on. Somehow or other, a few of the actors lost touch with what was going on and suddenly they heard the audience applauding and scrambled madly to the wings.

No harm done. I'll just say this: expectations are changing. It's interesting to watch how fast that happens, and with seemingly no discussion.

1 comment:

Kelly said...

Very interesting!