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Disruptive Broadway Audiences Master Stage Whisper

Jun 11, 2013

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

There have been several incidents, even fights, during recent New York theater performances. An argument over a woman nosily unwrapping her Twizzlers, a man throwing a Web-browsing woman's cell phone across the theater. What is going on? Are audiences less well mannered today?

We sent NPR's Margot Adler to find out.

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: I'm standing around the TKTS line on Broadway, where tourists and New Yorkers line up for lower priced tickets. Are audiences increasingly boorish?

VICTORIA PETTY: I think it depends on what play you go to see, and which musical, you know? Because I have been to some of them where the audience is absolutely fantastic, but then I have been to some where like there's just people just sitting there talking, like through the entire thing. It's awful.

MARC DEFUSCO: I think it's because we're used to talking at home, watching movies.

STEPHEN CALKINS: You know, the shows now allow like a lot of snacks, and a lot of, you know, drinks and things to be brought in. It's much more casual.

ADLER: So it's much more like going to a ballgame or something.

CALKINS: Yeah, it really is.

ADLER: You heard Victoria Petty, Marc Defusco and Stephen Calkins. And then there's Jan Simpson. She writes a blog called Broadway and Me.

JAN SIMPSON: I'm old fashioned. I like people to be silent.

ADLER: She attends about 150 performances a year. She also teaches journalism at the City University of New York. Think of the changes over the years, she says. Forty years ago, people dressed up for the theater. They were formal.

SIMPSON: Today if you can get people in with a T-shirt on, they feel they're dressed up.

ADLER: On the other hand, she says this whole notion of silence goes back only about 150 years. It took gas lights and then electricity to allow theaters to lower lights.

SIMPSON: The lights are going down, that means you be quiet - don't bring your food in.

ADLER: In Shakespeare's time they threw food on the stage. In fact those prime orchestra seats people so desperately want, that was the worst place to sit.

SIMPSON: Because the people who were sitting above would throw their food down and spit.

ADLER: Evangeline Morphos is a professor at Columbia University who teaches television, film and new media. She has also produced plays and says she goes to roughly 100 theater events a year. She says what you are really seeing in these fights between audience members, is a clash between different types of theater goers. One group, she says average age late 50's.

EVANGELINE MORPHOS: And they are subscribers. They go to multiple plays a year. And they consider themselves audience members of the theater, and they expect a certain kind of decorum.

ADLER: The other group, averages age 42, she says, and they have sometimes paid as much as $400 for a theater seat.

MORPHOS: So they don't consider themselves audience members; they are consumers. And they want a different kind of experience for their money.

ADLER: And then there are tech-savvy younger audiences. Some want to tweet about their experiences. In fact, at some off off-Broadway shows, there are tweet seats in the back, just as there are at TED conferences. Morphos remembers a performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music,

MORPHOS: They were encouraging audience members to tweet about the performance.

ADLER: During the performance.

MORPHOS: During the performance and to send photographs of it; the idea was that you are part of the experience.

ADLER: I guess what you're saying is you don't think it's a problem.

MORPHOS: I don't.

ADLER: Theater blogger Jan Simpson is more ambivalent. For as much as she loves silence in a darkened theater, she is quick to say, the theater of 40 years ago was only for the elite.

SIMPSON: And now it's opened up and lots of different kinds of people are going, which I love. I'm a cultural populist.

ADLER: So the question is how to create a balance for these different audiences, amid changing technology and changing values.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.