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Bad Theater

City Paper reader Lucia Diaz-French e-mailed us . . .

Photo: Illustration by Ben Claassen III, License: N/A

Illustration by Ben Claassen III

I recently attended Center Stage’s free performance of American Buffalo, which brought to my attention two staggering facts. The first is that people, regardless of their age, cannot be asked to turn off their cell phone, or for that matter leave it unchecked, for a mere two hours. The worst case of this compulsion I saw was from the man sitting in front of my boyfriend and I, who, after checking his texts and turning to his girlfriend for confirmation of how hilarious they were, proceeded to play Scrabble on his iPhone. This blatantly rude behavior would be subject to criticism regardless of where the audience member was sitting, but this man took it to an entirely new level as he was sitting in the front row. Not only could the entire audience see the glow from his touch phone, but without a doubt, so could the actors. After moving to new seats in the second act, my boyfriend and I then watched two other audience members check their phones during the performance, without any hesitation or recognition of their disregard for the people on stage who were there solely as a favor to them.

The second thing I noticed, which ties in directly to the first, is how audiences in general have apparently forgotten all such etiquette of attending the theater. For example, leaving the theater during the performance to go to the bathroom is unacceptable. One couple left during the first act, and throughout the play’s entirety, around five or six people left the theater, and then allowed themselves their own grand entrance upon returning. I watched in amazement as a woman stood up and walked through an entire aisle parallel to the stage, so she could presumably go to the bathroom. I remember when my parents would remind me to go to the bathroom before the curtain rose, and again during intermission, so such an interruption wouldn’t occur. After I was 9 years old, they stopped reminding me.

In addition to walking out during a show and using one’s cell phone, the number of people talking throughout American Buffalo was astounding. Women in their 30s giggled and whispered to each other. The man I first mentioned casually spoke in a hushed voice to his date. Twice my boyfriend and I asked them to be quiet. The stage manager later told me we were the second people to complain, and six people who sat around the couple later changed seats, simply to avoid this distracting behavior. It was as if the metaphorical fourth wall used to describe the space between actor and audience member was thought to be real, some tangible barrier that blocked all audience discussion.

As a 23-year-old recent college graduate, I look forward to these kinds of free events in Baltimore. After that performance, I wouldn’t be surprised if Center Stage stopped this promotion all together. Why shouldn’t they? If people who are offered tickets to a show for no cost show little to no respect for the actors or the theater, why should Center Stage continue? If Baltimore theatergoers can’t follow basic rules of courtesy, why should they be treated with any?

At the end of the play, the man I’ve been mentioning fell asleep and began to snore. One of the actors, justifiably furious at his antics, walked to the edge of the stage and slapped a prop to wake the man up. The audience erupted in applause, thankful that somebody finally acknowledged his consistently rude behavior. I only wish more people in the audience would recognize theirs.

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