Patti LuPone and Tim McGraw
(August 2009)

The New York Times entertainment reporter Dave Itzkoff chided actress Patti LuPone earlier this year when she stopped a performance of the Broadway musical Gypsy to tell an audience member to stop taking photos during the performance, Such conduct is a distraction to both performers and audience members and specifically forbidden by the theater. A few months later, she was at it again, this time stopping a concert appearance to reprimand an audience member who was sending a text message during the performance.

Itzkoff was wrong, and LuPone is right. Performing artists work hard at a difficult and emotionally challenging craft. They require attention, good manners and respect, which is not too much to ask, especially since it is the audience itself, not they, which decides who will watch and judge their performances. Perhaps some people are so unaccustomed to live theater that they can’t comprehend that the human beings on stage, unlike the two-dimensional figures on movie or TV screens, can see, hear, and have feelings. If so, the ignorance is entirely their own fault. It does not excuse distracting artists on stage, breaking the rules of venues, or spoiling performances for other, more civilized viewers, who typically pay close to three figures to enjoy a singer of LuPone’s talent.

“Do we allow our rights to be violated (photography, filming and audio taping of performances is illegal) or tolerate rudeness by members of the audience who feel they have the right to sit in a dark theater, texting or checking their e-mail while the light from their screens distract both performers and the audience alike? Or, should I stand up for my rights as a performer as well as the audiences I perform for?” LuPone asked in an e-mail message to the Times.

She should. It would be better if theater operators took the initiative by having properly staffed performing places, and enforcing policies that call for the removal of anyone using an electronic device during a performance. Put me down as advocating the confiscation of phones, IPods and Blackberries, if such a process could be made logistically feasible—though it can’t. It would also be better if audience members would police themselves. I have told young movie patrons whose glowing phones distracted my eye to cut it out and go outside to send their Tweets and text messages, and after receiving shocked glares, watched them stop. This works, but theatergoers aren’t seeking confrontation with their entertainment; realistically, audience self-policing isn’t going to become a standard practice either.

LuPone’s audacious response also is unlikely to become common, but one can’t deny its effectiveness. What can be more effective in cowing a rude Gypsy audience member than a dressing-down from “Mama Rose” herself? Those who say that reprimanding a rude audience member it isn’t worth disrupting a performance are speaking from ignorance: audience behavior that upsets performers and distracts audiences is already disrupting. Brava to Patti LuPone for having the principles and the courage to do the right thing.

Country music star Tim McGraw, meanwhile, has taken the performer policing initiative to another level, stopping his July performance at the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles to order a man to leave for abusing a female companion. Exactly what the man did is unknown, according the account printed in the San Luis Obispo Tribune, but whatever it was, his behavior offended and distracted McGraw. He also gets a big ethics star ,for not only protecting the integrity of his performance (whatever the guy was doing, it was obviously distracting to the singer), but for protecting the woman as well.

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