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A theatergoer's modest guide to etiquette

A playwright provocateur offers some helpful hints to enhance the theatrical experience.

May 04, 2003|Paul Rudnick | Special to The Times

1.You should arrive at the theater far too early. This will allow you ample opportunity to complain about finding parking, the punishing cost of the tickets, how uncomfortable the theater seats are, how there's no place to stash your coat and your shins, and how fiendishly tedious the last 12 plays and musicals you've seen have been, particularly those events that the critics proclaimed "searingly brilliant." But at least you're not late.

2.While waiting for the show to begin, it's fun to read the various bios in Playbill, but please do not keep repeating in a vigorous, braying tone, "Never heard of 'em!"

3.Unwrap all hard candies well before curtain, so that the distracting rustle of this activity will not occur during the performance. For some reason, the crackle of cellophane will rivet an audience more than Sir Ian McKellen in "Richard III," or Kathleen Turner in the raw. The only thing more disruptive than unsheathing a lozenge is coughing, because one cough in the orchestra section inspires another in the mezzanine, and so on, until the theater becomes a ward. A hint: If you feel a tickle coming on and fear that it might soon blossom into a catastrophic hack, just imagine what Elaine Stritch would do to you if she found you.

4.There are only three reasons for ever carrying a cell phone into the theater. One: You're awaiting an organ donation. And make that a major organ, not merely a lung or a leg. Two: Your wife is about to give birth to your first child (subsequent children are old news). Three: You're a world leader who could be called upon in a nuclear emergency (and even then, your phone must be set on vibrate). As for everyone else, you are just not important enough for anyone to call you at the theater, even during the 11th year of "The Phantom of the Opera." It is permissible, however, for performers onstage in "Phantom" to receive calls.

5.If your companion is hard of hearing, do not explain the onstage action by shouting a running commentary, such as, "Now King Lear is hugging her! Go figure!" When your favorite star makes an entrance, restrain the urge to howl, "Frank Langella -- I love you!" Mr. Langella has undoubtedly heard this phrase countless times before, especially alone at his dressing room mirror.

6.If you are female, do not rush from your seat 15 minutes before intermission. Your predicament, however, is understandable; someday a savvy producer will reap a fortune by cutting the show entirely and advertising, "Thirty spotless, spacious ladies rooms on ground level in midtown! $500 a seat!"

7.If the person in the seat next to you begins to snore audibly, nudge him awake. Then whisper, "You missed the nudity."

8.When a latecomer finally appears and, as is always the case, forces an entire row of decent, punctual people to stand up so that she can stumble to her seat, murmur to that criminal: "Everyone hates you. Not just the people in this theater. Everyone."

9.Never arrive at the theater dead drunk, unless you're an English actor starring in the play.

10.You are entitled to the use of only one armrest. The other one belongs to the large, smelly, chatty stranger sitting next to you, the individual with the soggy umbrella, the bursting shopping bags, the dripping burrito and the swine flu.

11.If you are offended by the show's crude language or overt sexual content, protest by seeing it several more times.

12.Do not leap out of your seat and race up the aisle skipping the curtain call in a calculated attempt to get first dibs on your car or taxi. What if, at the Pearly Gates, you discover that God is an actor?

13.If you bring small children with you to a show, after duct-taping and shackling the adorable toddlers, remind them that, "If you fidget, Simba will die." If your little boy enjoys musicals, this does not necessarily indicate that he's homosexual. If he insisted on attending all six productions in the Kennedy Center's Sondheim retrospective, he may just have exceptional taste.

14.A standing ovation is not automatically mandated by a show's massive budget, or by the entire cast lining up and grinning maniacally while they raise their arms. Rise and cheer only if you are truly moved to do so, or if you love ABBA that much.

15.Is it appropriate to attend a show during previews, and then to go online via your Palm Pilot to dish the first act at intermission? Yes ... but only if the show's creators are allowed equal time to discuss your hairpiece.

Paul Rudnick's plays include "I Hate Hamlet" and "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told."

This article is reprinted with permission from Show People magazine, www.showpeople.com.

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