The fight broke out during the first act of Glengarry Glen Ross.
As Al Pacino and Bobby Cannavale circled each other on the boards, a well-dressed woman in the audience was noisily working her way through a cellophane package of Twizzlers. When a man in the next seat shushed her, the woman’s thuggish husband loudly intervened.
The exchange became more heated until the husband—who could have passed for a second-tier personal injury attorney from Planet of the Apes—challenged his adversary to “take it outside.” The pace may have been a little slow on stage, but those of us in the mezzanine were riveted by the imminent possibility of actual violence.
For far too many Broadway-goers, like Our Lady of the Twizzlers, enjoying a night at the theater has come to mean behaving like they’re relaxing at home, watching the big-screen from their sofa. Such a sense of entitlement, and the pushback it provokes from touchy fellow audience members, has resulted in an increasing number of aggressive confrontations, which have now joined more commonplace theater annoyances like texting or a ringing cell phone.
“It’s getting worse,” said theater publicist Billy Zavelson. “People seem to be unaware of the fact that even checking the time on your phone infuriates a dozen people around you, and it’s happening more and more.”
Portable technology seems to be the most obvious catalyst for many in-theater fights. Most people have been to a live performance during which a ringing cell phone has interrupted the show—some even have stories in which the offender chose to take the call.
Meanwhile, texting or using a mobile web browser has emerged as a form of annoying audience behavior to which some people feel especially entitled. The reasoning seems to be that because such activity does not involve audio, it should be allowed. But once a sensitive fellow theatergoer catches sight of the glowing screen, it can be easy to fixate on the irritation, like a dripping faucet in the still of the night.
National Review columnist Kevin Williamson became an Internet hero last week after writing about his experience seeing Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 at Kazino on West 13th Street. After exchanging words with a woman whom he believed was using her phone to Google things during the performance, he snatched it from her hand and threw it across the room, where it hit a curtain. So she slapped him and summoned the event space’s security director.
Mr. Williamson wrote that the theater official attempted to make him stay on the premises, as the woman was considering pressing charges. He declined and went home to pen an angry column.
“In a civilized world, I would have received a commendation of some sort,” he wrote. “To the theater-going public of New York—nay, the the world—I say: ‘You’re welcome.’”
In Mr. Zavelson’s opinion, it’s not just the technology audience members have in the palms of their hands that’s to blame. He suspects that on-demand and streaming media services have accustomed people to viewing “shows” in the casual atmosphere of their own homes, and now they are bringing those manners with them into the public space. When their behavior elicits a strong response from other typically overwound New Yorkers, even minor issues can quickly escalate.
“There are the ‘shushes’ that are louder than any cell phone ringing,” he said. “I used to be the one who was, ‘Will you please shut up!’ Then you get so embarrassed because you realize you have acted disproportionately to the original issue. You become that Upper West Side, Lincoln Plaza movie person, where there are only three people in the theater and they’re yelling, ‘Shut up, shut up’ to the person behind them who’s eating fried chicken.”
How common is it for an audience member to go from “shushing” a fellow patron to actually touching them? It seems to happen all the time.
Observer theater critic Jesse Oxfeld recalls “the time I reached across my date and grabbed an old man’s arm as he started opening his second bag of M&Ms. After I’d patiently sat through him crinkling his way through the first bag.”
But that was nothing compared to the recent experience of Dean Kurth. The television news producer was attending Matilda on April 19 when his companion asked the woman next to him “to stop talking and texting. “
“Apparently he brushed her arm lightly in an effort to get her attention,” Mr. Kurth related in an email. “She didn’t like that and their conversation quickly became a shouting match that was audible to many over the show. The woman was yelling, ‘Don’t put your hand in my face!’
“At intermission the woman started up again as my friend and I tried to leave our row. It got pretty ugly, and this time the entire crowd in the balcony took notice.” A uniformed security guard had to intervene, and further confrontation was prevented only thanks to the woman switching seats.
“I’d never seen anything like it,” wrote Mr. Kurth. “I guess the lesson is, don’t touch anyone in a dark theater.”
Of course, another disruptive thing people can do with their smartphones is take pictures. Broadway hosts a wide variety of Hollywood celebrities, and theatergoers are being asked to pay $150 or more, even for mediocre seats. With such an outlay required to see the likes of Tom Hanks in Lucky Guy or Alec Baldwin in Orphans, it is hardly surprising that many people feel it’s reasonable to augment their social media presences with a souvenir photo of the evening.
On recent nights at I’ll Eat You Last with Bette Midler and Macbeth with Alan Cumming, the ushers could be observed swarming like moths as the first act began, drawn to the telltale glows of half a dozen camera phones.
But even that behavior pales next the enterprising souls who realize their devices can also shoot video. Last February, Matthew Broderick famously stopped the show and broke character when he noticed a man in the audience filming him in Nice Work If You Can Get It.
While bootlegs have a long, proud history in this city—rock historians are grateful that performances at CBGB and the Fillmore East in the 1970s were not lost to posterity, thanks to smuggled shotgun microphones—many, like Mr. Broderick, would probably prefer that you simply purchase a CD at the merch stand.
Ken Davenport, a producer whose credits include Macbeth, Kinky Boots and Godspell, believes the industry needs to respond to increasingly poor behavior in the stalls.
“Theatergoing manners (like manners in general) have been on the decline over the past 20 to 30 years,” he wrote on his blog, the Producer’s Perspective, in April. “As our audience expanded, and our ability to sit still has waned, some manners have gone out the window.”
Mr. Davenport offered a six-point plan for improving audience behavior, including better training for theater staff and publishing a guide to etiquette in every Playbill and emailing it to customers before each performance.
Point No. 6: “Install ejector seats?”
One time, not too long ago, I even got into an argument at a show with a Broadway actor. It was Pacific Overtures at Studio 54, which had an ambiguous seating arrangement using four-top bar tables. The second act was in full swing as I squabbled over seats with Tony Roberts, known for playing Woody Allen’s best friend in several of his films and their stage versions.
When the usher got involved, she discovered it was the other couple at the table that was squatting. Mr. Roberts and I muttered our apologies, and years later I saw him in Xanadu.
If it happened again today, I believe the etiquette would be to hit him.