You might recall the evening of Nov. 8, 2016. Millions of Americans watched election returns coming in, including what seemed like every third audience member attending opening night of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The soft glow climbing up from their laps made Morsani Hall at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts look like the control room of a spaceship, diffusing around their transfixed faces.
The lights committed the collective sin of reminding us that the outside world and its ordinary dramas, which come free because you get what you pay for, not only exists but triumphs over our best efforts to escape it. Apart from that symbolism, the lights from the phones did not bother me much.
Until one of them went off.
Christopher, 15, had spent most of the first act trying to solve the stabbing death of the neighbor’s dog, Wellington. The culprit was confessing to the crime in a creepy and effective way, encroaching on the boy’s already fragile psychological space.
The tension had reached its peak when music erupted immediately behind my head: the theme from Star Wars.
The evening reinforces a truism: We choose our entertainment, but not the strangers who show up around us. And if those people decide to needlessly and selfishly inconvenience others, most times there is little we can do about it.
Except to issue etiquette citations, which is what we’re going to do here. These citations do not yet carry fines, but perhaps venues and cities could work out some kind of arrangement and split the proceeds. Here is a partial list of etiquette offenses, ranked on a scale of 1 to 5, mild to Star Wars.
Way beyond casual
Can you fill the tank? I’ve got to get coffee. What do you think, want to push on for a couple more hours, then get a motel? We’re in Ogden, Utah. Boise is four hours away.
Oh, wait a minute. We’re not on a car trip? We’re in a performing arts hall?
Then maybe shorts and flip-flops and a thin T-shirt don’t quite make it.
Think I’m exaggerating? I have seen people come to the theater in exactly this attire. It’s a buzzkill, even more than cellphone glow. No one misses the days when men wore a coat and tie to the dog track, but vast middle ground exists between overdressed and sloppy. Act like the venue is a destination, not a gas station along the way. Level 1
The armrest hog
This can be easy to miss. If you’re sitting next to someone who slides away from you, the assumption that she never really wanted the armrest anyway seems legitimate. But think back. Did she move away after you plopped your forearm there? Your neighbor might be too discreet to show concern, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t resent you hogging the armrest.
I know what you’re thinking.
Isn’t there a 50 percent likelihood someone is going to get an armrest? What are you supposed to do — hug your elbows to your ribcage and pretend you never wanted it, just to possibly avoid offending someone who might not want the armrest anyway? And maybe it’s her karma. Maybe the last time she went out, she was the one hogging the armrest. It’s your turn.
This places the entire boundary issue into the realm of a coin toss. It’s not, any more than you have a 50 percent right to blow leaves at the edge of your property onto your neighbor’s yard. (Ask Rand Paul.) When it comes down to it, you paid for half an armrest on each side you might not be able to use. You kind of got ripped off. Bless this, release this. And if there’s any doubt, leave the armrest alone. Level 2
This really is a thing. It’s no fun for me at 6 feet 3, having to scissor myself sideways like a Swiss Army knife, squeezing my elbows to my chest to avoid the guy on my right (who is hogging the armrest) while keeping my toes at a respectful distance from the woman on my left. Women could in theory also be guilty of this behavior, but I haven’t seen it. So, guys, it appears we have earned this label. Level 3
Feet too close to face
By all means, make yourself comfortable. But if you cross your legs, it would be helpful if you crossed them at the 10-degree angle, not the 90-degree. Because when you do that, not only are you symbolically spacewalking into my zone, you are showing me the sole of your shoe. Is that a big deal? Maybe and maybe not.
But look at the “maybe” half of that equation. The ground is by definition unclean. We wear shoes to avoid touching it. I don’t have a gas chromatography-mass spectrometry instrument available, but if my nose detects anything at all amiss after you do a manspread leg cross, it’s going to mess with my head. I don’t want to be thinking about gum or grass stains or whatever other thing might be on the soles of your shoes. Level 2
The really late
“Excuse me” shuffler
Let’s be fair and adopt a rule. If you can get to your seat any time before the lights go down, you are exempt from citations. We issue the rule grudgingly because, hey, it’s no fun getting up for the 10th time. But it’s not their fault most performing arts halls are designed with no center aisle, forcing 42 people in row G to get up so that G-43 and 44 can get to their seats.
It’s a different matter when it’s halfway into the opening number and the usher aims a couple of latecomers down your aisle like a lieutenant in some World War II movie about submarines. You sense a vague discord before you hear it, and hear it before you persuade yourself to turn your head. It sinks in.
This can’t be happening.
One could argue that the really late shuffler deserves the same allowances we gave the last-second shuffler who just beat the deadline. We don’t know the circumstances. Maybe it was bridge traffic, the babysitter was late or their socks didn’t match and they had to go through the entire laundry. This is false compassion. Really late shufflers demonstrate reckless disregard, the same standard that gets people locked up for involuntary manslaughter. Level 3
Try to stay awake
I have never encountered this next violation at operas, musicals or orchestra concerts. I have seen it at plays — usually the abstruse kind audiences feel they should appreciate and perhaps do, until they get just a little too sleepy.
I know the temptation. One show went slowly and lyrically, the language moving in lovely syncopated phrases. Before I jolted myself upright, the people in the first few rows were starting to resemble buildings against a dusky city skyline. Here’s the deal: You can’t fall asleep.
Level 3 Unless the show is unforgivably boring, in which case a judge will reduce the fine to a Level 1.
This is not Divorce Court
It’s one thing for the mundane to intrude into an otherwise pleasant night at a play or concert. But what if the intrusion comes from something worse than mundane? Before the start of a musical this season, a man next to me began hectoring the woman I later learned was his wife. “That’s not what I asked you!” he said, and it escalated from there. His wife replied in brief murmurs, as if it was all something she was used to. I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop. One ear was naturally attuned to picking up his conversation, since I had jackknifed myself at 65 degrees the other way to escape his manspread, was clinging to my own ribcage and crossing one foot under the opposite calf. Bottom line, I don’t go to a show to hear your marital problems, let alone your one-way verbal abuse. Level 4
OFF WITH A WARNING
This might shock some people, but not everything is a big deal. Some of the other popularly cited theater no-no’s have never bothered me. The venue always has some recorded voice, artistic director or associate admonishing you to unwrap anything plastic before curtain because actors or musicians will hear it.
I guess they have done a great job because in the hundreds of performances I’ve seen, I can’t recall a single plastic wrapper disrupting any of them. The same goes for people, invariably women, discreetly slipping off their shoes in their seats. This is Florida. On the rare occasions I have seen this, the only negative emotion I felt was jealousy.
Some show behaviors live in half-light, like those phones people might want to monitor silently. That at least was the position of Laura Kressly, a London theater critic who managed to set off a Twitter firestorm by not being offended. Kressly recently opined that performers and audiences should relax about people glancing at their phones during performances.
“There were several threats of violence, many insults and one person even tried to get me fired from my job,” she told me. “Of the people that supported me, many were parents or other caregivers who would find it hard to not check their phones for texts or missed calls indicating trouble at home.”
This isn’t the same as saying the lights from phones aren’t distracting.
“I never claim to not get annoyed by things like that,” Kressly said. “But the crux of my view comes from the fact that we can never know what other people, strangers, are going through, and that there may be a possibility that their actions have an important reason behind them. There’s no way of knowing unless you know the individual personally.”
Clapping between movements
One of the diciest questions entails applauding between movements at orchestral concerts. I maintain this is a false concern, but not for the reasons typically stated in recent years.
Symphonies are typically organized in movements. It was once considered fine for audiences to applaud whenever they felt like it. Records of 19th century concerts show conductors sometimes repeating entire movements, just to please their wildly applauding audiences.
“I’m not even sure when not clapping became a thing,” said Edward Parsons, the Florida Orchestra’s general manager.
It became a thing in the 20th century, when Richard Wagner and other composers argued concert pieces should be taken as a whole, with even positive judgments withheld until the end.
The pendulum might be swinging back toward populism, as orchestras fear making already declining audiences self-conscious.
“The clapping between movements thing is touchy,” Parsons acknowledged. “We have gotten feedback from some audience members that are very bothered by it and requested that we make an announcement at the top of the show to tell people not to. But no one on the stage is particularly offended by it, and why would they (be)? People are showing their appreciation, which is a lovely thing.”
This is all well and good, but blanket permissions do a disservice to those who would rather not applaud between movements but sometimes make mistakes.
This is easy enough to do. You can lose count of movements or get fooled by a thunder-and-lighting conclusion to an earlier movement that sounds for all the world like a finale.
My rule of thumb: When in doubt, don’t. It doesn’t matter if Zeus has brought the heavens down, or if percussion and brass have exploded to a shattering finish. Don’t. Look at the conductor. Is he or she motionless, the baton still in the air? Are the musicians all staring at the conductor, basically with no one moving? If that’s what you’re looking at, do not applaud, even if this is the end of the symphony.
“Conductors often let the sound hang for a moment after the last note is played, especially if the music ends quietly,” Parsons said. “It is good form to not disturb that silence as silence is an important part of music as well.”
When you see the conductor’s shoulders relax, then you see the conductor turn to acknowledge a soloist or concertmaster, that means it’s over and it’s safe to applaud. And if you find yourself applauding, either because you didn’t realize the symphony isn’t over or you just wanted to, don’t sweat it.
Bosoms or backsides?
Let’s revisit another contentious subject, namely the sideways sarabande down the aisle getting to your seat. Agreed, you want to get there before curtain and sooner rather than later. But which way should you face, the stage or your seatmates?
Opinions differ on the “bosoms or backsides” question, or which side of yourself to present to strangers. Older Americans, including etiquette experts Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt, all favored facing the stage.
Letitia Baldridge held that facing the people in your row is too intimate, “like kissing.” Besides, turning away allows you to steady yourself by grasping the backs of chairs in the next row. These days, facing either way is acceptable to Americans.
Europeans, on the other hand, tend to face customers in their row. I happen to agree with this approach, mainly because close proximity to strangers is intimate, but turning your back to them doesn’t make it any less so. Facing my seatmates is also safer for them, since it reduces the chances of my size 13 shoes crunching someone’s open toes.
Just because other people are getting up doesn’t mean you have to. I feel perfectly comfortable remaining in my seat while others on all sides are standing. Standing ovations have traditionally meant that an audience was moved by an extraordinary production, not as a reward for competence. Sometimes the people sleeping are the same ones standing and applauding later, to show how much they appreciated the show they didn’t see.
Phones, one more time
Let’s address the lone Level 5 violation in this story, the phone call you get in the middle of the show. You know what? Just take the call.
It could be Steve, your son-in-law, reminding you to get the unfinished door at Home Depot, not a varnished one. It’ll save you 50 percent, and Steve can varnish the door himself.
Oh no! I forgot! You’re at a live show. Sorry, it’s an easy thing to forget. (Apparently.)
But maybe — this is a correction — don’t take the call. Wait till tomorrow, when you’re on the way to Home Depot. You can decide about the door then. In the meantime, why not just enjoy the show?