Clarence Fanto: The 'LuPone Solution' for poor theater etiquette

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LENOX >> I have a new hero this month, and I'm far from alone in my admiration.

Patti LuPone, the reigning queen of Broadway singer-actresses, is not someone to be trifled with when she appears onstage, and one suspects, offstage as well.

Ms. LuPone chose not to tolerate what she called "a cacophony of noise ... the day from hell, all day" at the July 1 performances of "Shows for Days," on view at Lincoln Center in Manhattan.

She portrays a small-town theater diva in the comedy by Douglas Carter Beane. But it was no laughing matter when four cellphones rang during the matinee.

At the evening performance, a second-row theatergoer texted continuously, prompting Ms. LuPone to break down the theatrical "fourth wall" by leaving the stage and grabbing the woman's phone, which was returned after the final curtain.

Addressing the audience the next night amid wild cheers and applause, she explained: "We love having you in the audience. It's always just two or three people who wreck it for all of us. I'm on your side, I do it for you."

Brava, Patti! But I must report that despite her plea, one phone rang during the performance that followed.

Why would someone buy a ticket for the show ($87) and come to the theater "if they can't let go of the phone," LuPone wondered in a New York Times interview the next day.

"It's controlling them. They can't turn it off and can't stop looking at it. They are truly inconsiderate, self-absorbed people who have no public manners whatsoever. I don't know what to do anymore. I was hired as an actor, not a policeman of the audience."

In 2009, starring in a revival of "Gypsy," she stopped in mid-song to call out a patron who was snapping photos. Ms. LuPone doesn't suffer theatergoing fools gladly, to say the least.

Now, with theater etiquette under siege, she's had it. "I am so defeated by this issue that I seriously question whether I want to work on stage anymore," she stated. "I'm at my wit's end. I'm hired to tell a story, and it takes a lot of effort and work to do that convincingly. It's a handful of people who destroy that experience for everyone. It's heartbreaking. Theater is not a social event."

It's a shame that a great Broadway star has to resort to vigilante justice against folks who consider a play-in-progress a great time to check their Twitter "feed."

Other actors, including Kevin Spacey and Hugh Jackman, have taken matters into their own hands in mid-performance, not by snatching a phone but by imploring audience members to silence their devices.

For Spacey, the breaking point came during his run in "Clarence Darrow" on the London stage. As reported by The Boston Globe, when a patron's phone rang incessantly, the actor yelled: "If you don't answer that, I will!" Big round of applause.

Cellphone outrage seems to reached epidemic proportions on Manhattan stages. A 19-year-old college student attending "Hand to God" at a Broadway playhouse saw that his phone's battery was spent, so he jumped onto the set (just before the performance) to plug it into an electrical outlet on stage. The realistic-looking outlet was only a prop.

Basking in his 15 seconds of fame, Nick Silvestri justified his action: "Girls were calling all day, what would you do?" he told Playbill.com. Later at a news conference, he apologized, though he added that texting in a theater isn't "that big of a deal."

Here in the Berkshires, I've been fortunate so far this summer not to have encountered chirping phones and telltale lit-up screens during performances at Tanglewood. I imagine there have been incidents elsewhere.

During the just-opened Broadway show by magicians Penn & Teller, the tables are turned as the audience is asked to turn on their phones as part of a trick.

Penn Jillette told The Times it's useless to implore people to behave. "That particular scold — 'Don't use your cellphone' — is like telling children to be quiet with a substitute teacher. It's not going to work. You can't really do it with fake authority."

Agreed, real authority is called for, as demonstrated by Ms. LuPone. An extreme offender should be ejected, no refund.

"We work hard on stage to create a world that is being totally destroyed by a few rude, self-absorbed and inconsiderate audience members who are controlled by their phones," LuPone said in her statement. "When a phone goes off or when a LED screen can be seen in the dark it ruins the experience for everyone else — the majority of the audience at that performance and the actors on stage."

Next time she appears in the Berkshires, I hope to meet her and offer heartfelt congratulations for her courageous stand. Meanwhile, let's hope more performers emulate the LuPone Solution. What have we come to when the threat of public shaming is the only way to discourage obviously inappropriate behavior?

Contact Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com.


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