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OUT OF CONTROL
WHAT'S WITH ALL THIS COUGHING, TALKING, RINGING AND RUSTLING THAT'S COMPETING WITH PERFORMERS?

We arrived at the concert hall early, pressed and polished, excited to soon be hearing live symphony music again. Our seats were not too bad either, center balcony, second row.

Yes, we were too cheap to spring for orchestra seating, but in a good concert hall there really aren't any bad seats. Or so I thought.

In the interest of civility, I will not go into great detail concerning the trio seated in front of us. I was almost able to ignore the champagne-induced sing-along performed by what appeared to be an elderly mother, middle-aged son and daughter-in-law. I might not have mentioned them at all, if the son hadn't felt compelled to assist in conducting the orchestra for several crucial minutes during a particularly allegro passage. If her pneumatic giggles were any indication, his wife certainly enjoyed her spouse's star turn until an errant elbow slammed into her brow.

Nor will I concern myself much with the lone gentleman who sat beside me during the first part of the concert; apparently he suffered from some sort of structural malady that caused him to lean sideways, closer and closer, until I feared I might be employed as a travel pillow. When he failed to respond to a gentle "excuse me," one quick jab to the ribs seemed to revive him sufficiently.

It wasn't the first time our concert enjoyment had been trespassed.

Fashion question: If you own a bracelet comprised of 50 tinkling bells, bells that chime and peal with your every breath, do you wear them to the symphony?

Answer: If you are the woman who sat behind us at a Holiday Pops concert, the answer is a resounding yes. Tinkling and twinkling in her red and white fur-trimmed tank top, the Jingle Belle ruined the first half of the concert for at least two rows worth of Kleinhans patrons that evening.

Despite the swiveling heads of fellow music lovers, Jingle Belle chimed on, at one point attempting (and failing) to keep time during a medley of carols.

Somehow her mindless merriment persisted even in the face of what my husband calls my Sicilian Look. Finally, for fear that Belle's tintinnabulations might drive me to make good on the Look's promise, my husband approached her at intermission and requested that she remove her festive but distracting bauble for the duration of the concert. Her date appeared struck dumb by this request, but Belle managed to reply "Um, sure." Several people thanked my husband as he took his seat.

We were able to enjoy the rest of the concert. For the most part. (I swear I could hear those bells tinkling in her bag.)

Reflecting on my experiences at the recent concerts, I have to wonder if Audience Idiocy has infected Buffalo as it has plagued other cities.

Early in the month, as I enjoyed the incomparable jazz singer Andy Bey's concert at the Calumet, I marveled at the number of audience members loudly talking while he sang. Did the businessman at the next table really need to divulge to the waitress, and the rest of us, that he "was in promotions" while Mr. Bey was in mid-song? Perhaps my Sicilian Look worked that evening; Mr. Promotions left soon after receiving it.

More galling was the drunk who yelled out, "Stop talking and sing!" during one of Mr. Bey's self-effacing ballad introductions. I thought I had left that kind of public display of "It's All About Me" back in Seattle, where cell phones, beepers and pagers ring, and are answered, during major theater productions.

Once, during a run of "The Little Foxes" at Seattle's Intiman Theater, I witnessed a woman in the second row answer her loudly ringing cell phone, not once, but twice, as the increasingly agitated actors worked mightily to ignore her. At intermission, the lead actor stood on the edge of the stage and rained down abuse upon her head; many people applauded. Incredibly, later in the evening the phone rang a third time. The woman did not answer it, she skulked out of the theater.

Sadly, Buffalo and Seattle do not have a corner on the Rude Audience market. Across our great nation in jazz clubs, theaters, concert halls and intimate cafes the honking of noses, clearing of throats, shadow-conducting, indiscreet eating, heckling, barking, and beeping of gadgetry rings out the theme of "I Celebrate Me, All Others Can Jump."

Salt Lake City's Kingsbury Hall has taken the bold step of posting an article on audience boorishness in the Patron Info section of their Web site. In a piece by Jacques Le Sourd, entitled "Performers Make Noise Over Audiences Acting Rudely," actress Linda Lavin reflects that laugh tracks and live audience tapings encourage theater audiences to "imitate the kinds of reactions they hear on TV."

In New York, during an off-Broadway production of "Dinner With Friends," the cast was so offended by a front row patron's antics (which included a "hippopotamus-like" yawn) that they refused to take their curtain calls.

During the run of David Mamet's "The Old Neighborhood" at the Booth Theater, Broadway performer Patti Lupone was driven to write an announcement that is now read before each performance that is a plea for consideration of other members of the audience (and cast). It also includes an admonition to turn off all electronics and "unwrap any hard candies that you may have at this time."

Perhaps other theaters should follow the Booth's lead.

As Le Sourd points out, not only are audiences behaving abominably, "they often counterattack when asked to behave properly."

My husband escaped unscathed when he confronted the Jingle Belle at Kleinhans, but other brave theatergoers are not so lucky. Greg Evans, chief drama critic for Variety, has coined the term "stage rage" for this phenomenon. He knows firsthand of what he speaks; after turning a "dirty look" at a loud woman seated behind him at a press preview of "The Scarlet Pimpernel," he was harangued by her husband.

Many people don't dare confront errant audience members for fear of provoking the kind of retaliation now rampant in air travel.

And in our age of Internet based communication, commerce and entertainment, individuals can cocoon themselves in a self-based environment largely devoid of face-to-face encounters; I fear we are losing our collective ability to behave civilly. The e-mail flamer gives way to the public screamer with the slightest pressure. The old maxim "If you don't use it you lose it" holds true even for the little daily politenesses that can grease human interaction; without them, it's far too easy to place the right to please one's self first.

With so much emphasis placed on personal entertainment, from My MTV to My Mp3, perhaps the current generation of audiences needs a primer on the audience/performer relationship. In a speech to the National Press Club in 1997, the actor Patrick Stewart of the Royal Shakespeare Company (and, of course, "Star Trek, The Next Generation") sardonically cast some light on what he called the "sophisticated contract" between audiences and actors. If the audience holds up their end of the contract, he said: "We will take you on a journey. The actor promises to show you the human heart in all its tenderness, its cruelty, its pain, its absurdity. We will dazzle you with language, poetry and metaphor."

As for the audience's responsibilities, Stewart added: "If you don't throw things at us, don't discuss out loud the age of our leading lady - or the hairpiece of our leading man - if you switch off your cell phones and beepers, if you don't try to tape or record us in any way, leave those candies unwrapped, those coughs in your handkerchiefs, your cynicism at the door - then we promise the possibility of an experience that might stay with you for life."

In closing, Stewart acknowledged that the "contract" offered is in reality a "gamble" that if the audience abides by the rules they may "find (themselves) two to three hours from now not the same person."

What a small gamble for such a rich and lasting reward.

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