Theater etiquette: Be on time, be quiet and don't chew ice

Fans of comedian Bill Maher and his Friday night show are familiar with his parting shtick, "New Rules," wherein he assails his latest and/or ongoing pet peeves and suggests ways to remedy them.

If I may borrow from Bill for a moment, here's my …

NEW RULE: Theaters and auditoriums should adopt the same rule that airlines have had for some time: If you're not in your seat 15 minutes before takeoff, you lose your seat.

I arrived at this idea after attending a lovely concert of chamber music last week by a quintet featuring two violins, a viola, a cello and a piano, with special appearances by a delicately fetching soprano and an amazing flute player, on a world tour from their home base in Orenburg, Russia.

Such music, you would no doubt agree, calls for utter silence in the audience, so that the soft tones of the strings, woodwind and voice could be heard.

Didn't happen.

Instead, I felt as though I were at a Metallica concert, with chattering people arriving up to 50 minutes after the concert had started, cells phones ringing in the dulcet tones of an ice cream wagon, patrons bringing in refreshments double-wrapped in cellophane and open-topped beverages (which they left half-consumed on the floor of the theater) and an usher with an LED flashlight that could illuminate the entire inside of the tomb of Ramses II, which he flashed into our faces as he searched for the elusive seats of those latecomers.

The rows of seats are close together at the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center, so when a party of these knaves and wretches would arrive, everyone on that row had to file out into the aisle to let them reach their seats. All this as Miss Elena Boguslavskaya sang a moving Ave Maria or the flute player performed solo.

When the duo in the center of my aisle arrived 50 minutes after the start of the concert, I started to refuse to move, but fearing the splash of beverages or the flash of weapons, I assented to scrunching out into the aisle and letting them in, all the while gritting my teeth, as mumbling even mild profanities would have further added to the chaos.

One of the many reasons that I enjoy concerts by the Hernando Symphony Orchestra is that those in charge place a large easel in the foyer clearly stating that latecomers will be seated only between numbers on the program. If someone leaves during the concert and returns while the musicians are playing, that person is held back by the door until the audience applauds to mask his or her return.

I am happy to report that the late arrivals and early departures at local theaters are much less common today than they were only a few years ago, as well-trained ushers have begun to enforce the rules of civility (though we're not all there yet), which dictate that we do not interfere with others' enjoyment of a presentation through our own inconsiderate behavior, which includes arriving late, leaving early, talking during a show, cell phone use of any kind, repeated coughing (leave if you must cough more than twice) or over-zealous laughter that steps on the lines of a performer on the stage.

I was horrified earlier this year to see that the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center has added cup holders — cup holders! — to its seats in Carol Morsani Hall, making a trip to that lovely venue less like a special event and more like a jaunt to the local moving picture house.

I felt fear and trepidation a week ago during Fiddler on the Roof when I saw a man balance two cups of hot, steaming coffee in one hand as he wiggled his way across my row on his way to his seat, his trembling hand poised over the heads of people in front of us.

I listened in disgust as the woman behind me chewed ice cubes during the tender Far From the Home I Love during the second act.

I won't even go into the man two seats over whose roars of laughter were like the sounds of a wounded lion at every marginally humorous utterance on stage.

Am I picky? You bet.

I'm a firm believer in the "Broken Window" theory of James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, which says that once "the sense of mutual regard and the obligations of civility" break down, society collapses. It may start with a broken window — or a late arrival at a concert — but when people get the idea that no one cares, it isn't long before no one does.

Theater etiquette: Be on time, be quiet and don't chew ice 05/08/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 8, 2009 8:45pm]

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