Ah, if only Mrs. Mannerly were around today — and stationed at every theater lobby in America.
She would not tolerate a cell phone going off, or texting or talking, or a myriad of other audience sins that have the potential of ruining a night in the theater for others.
You see, Mrs.Mannerly is an etiquette expert and the titular character in Jeffrey Hatcher's play that is now in previews at Hartford's TheaterWorks. (The show opens Oct. 18 and runs through Nov. 17.)
The play was inspired by Hatcher's instructor at a good behaviorial class in the '60s in Steubenville, Ohio, and how this caring woman shaped his life, teaching him the rules of the social road — as well how to take a few off ramps.
Though her purview was overall social behavior, what would Mrs.M. think of theater audiences today and their increasingly ill-bred actions.
"She would be appalled," says Hatcher, "especially the use of cell-phones, crinkly candy wrappers and the use of food and drink in theaters."
Sometimes those audience gaffes are finger-licking appalling.
Ed Stern, who directs the Hartford production (he staged the play in Cincinnati, too) remembers one memorable Broadway experience.
"Sitting next to me was a gentleman who not-so-quietly was removing a box from a plastic bag. An unmistakable aroma wafted across the space. He was opening a boxed dinner from Kentucky Fried Chicken. The whole dinner: The chicken. The mashed potatoes. The biscuit. And a large drink. He sat there eating oblivious of the people around him. I can't say I could pay attention to the show anymore. I just wanted a bite of that chicken."
Sometimes you just have to laugh. Or sigh.
"I wish people would treat the theater as an event that deserves respect," says Dale Hodges, who plays Mrs. Mannerly at TheaterWorks (she also played the role in Cincinnati). "So much work has been put into these productions. If you don't want to focus on it, stay at home. If you're not someone who enjoys doing that perhaps this is not the art form for you."
If you think the actors on stage don't notice you talking, texting or sleeping, you're wrong. And you should hear what they're saying about you back stage. And sometimes on.
Raymond McAnally who is also in "Mrs. Mannerly" in Hartford and Cincinnati, says he's broken "the fourth wall" and spoken back to audience members when it got to be too much.
"If it's a comedy you're in, you can turn a negative into a treat, making it part of the show. But most of the time you just have to suffer."
The outrageous acts are typically done not out of malice but ignorance. Young people who are use to getting entertainment on film, TV or on the concert stage, are especially oblivious to rules — or schedules.
Stern remembers the time when Madonna was starring in David Mamet's play, "Speed the Plow" on Broadway when a group of high schoolers from Long island arrived late to the show. "Learning that the play was almost over, they said, "No problem. We'll just wait for the next performance."
Joe Manganiellio, who stars in HBO's popular "True Blood," stopped the Yale Repertory Theatre production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" to admonish fans of the TV series when they started taking pictures when he took off his shirt and exposed his sculpted torso. He also took to Twitter for a few more exasperated tweets before he came up with another strategy with this tweet: "I'm happy to take pics outside after the show and @yalerep posted some fantastic shots of the play that they took. Please be respectful."
But sometimes the theaters themselves are enablers. In being more customer-friendly, drinks and sometimes snacks are increasingly allowed into the theater. "It's something we struggle with all the time," says Rob Ruggiero, producing artistic director of TheaterWorks. "We do have to educate without harming their freedom of experience."
So short of giving tasers to ushers, here's a Mrs. Manners-style educational guide that might limit the drama to what's happening on stage.
Arrive on time. I remember Dame Edna stopping her Broadway solo show and asking a pair of late arrivals where they were from. New Jersey, they said. "Well, I came here from Australia and I got here on time." Give yourself plenty of time to get to the theater. It is a social occasion, too, so enjoy the pre-show time.
Not-so-smart-smart-phone owners: If the cell phone rings, we'll hate you for it but we might kill you if you don't make an effort to shut it off. Pretending it's someone else's phone never works, especially if it rings again and again. So shut everything off. Everything. That includes the phone, the apps, the chiming watch, the iPad and those little voices you hear in your head. And putting your phone on "vibrate": doesn't count. We hear that, too. Better yet, leave them all in the car.
No texting or tweeting. Save it for the drive home.
Shhhhhh! No talking during the show. Simple, no? If there's something on stage you don't understand, ask your companion — at intermission.
And that goes for coughing: Twitter follower JEB54 writes, "In 1975, when I was a college student in Dallas, Texas, I attended a Dallas Opera production of Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde', with Jon Vickers and Roberta Knie in the title roles. The curtain rises at the beginning of the third act to reveal the wounded Tristan reclining on the stage as an orchestral prelude transpires in the pit. Since the audience felt that nothing was yet happening, one and another opera-goer took the opportunity to indulge a cough. Soon we had a small chorus of coughing, as if it were contagious. Suddenly a voice boomed out from the shadows of the stage. It was Vickers, instructing us to "Shut up with your damn coughing!" Absolute silence prevailed through the rest of the prelude. Somebody, I think one of Dallas's music critics, later dubbed that performance "Dristan und Isolde." If I'm in the house and need to cough, I try to muffle it and place it between lines."
And picture taking: Just remember, you're not invisible and this is the one faux pas that can lead to a heave-ho. Follower @jszkryo tells this story: "This summer I saw a guy in the orchestra of the Met taking pictures of the ballet with an iPad. Hello! We can all see you!"
Don't be slobs. Pick up after yourself if you consumed snacks or beverages. (And while we're on the subject, when did this urgent need to hydrate begin? You're sitting in a theater, not running a marathon. If you must, keep those big gulps to a minimum).
No Barcaloungers here. And no feet on the stage. It's not a private ottoman for those in the front row. It's hallowed ground to the actors and stretching out shows the ultimate of disrespect. Plus if it's "Richard III" you might get those tootsies cut off. Twitter follower @maddiesaysso says she "sat next to a guy [when she went to see the musical] "Scandalous" who had REALLY stinky feet that he hung over the seat in front of him... Shoeless."
No butts, Please: And the late great etiquette maven Letitia Baldrige had this piece of advice from the '90s: When passing people in a row, she says, face toward them, not the stage.
Brief the kids: If you're bringing youngsters, have a talk with them before you leave the house or car, and remind them of what they are about to see, how they are expected to behave. Or else.
Don't multi-task: Stern said when he directed "Loves Labor's Lost" at Penn State he saw a front row audience member watching the play — while grading papers. "I was horrified and I could feel my blood pressure boiling." He cheered when one of the actors went down, grabbed the papers and used it as part of the scene. "It was brilliant — and we didn't give them back to him until after the show."
If you feel queasy, leave. A Twitter follower named "sweetrosen," who is also an actor, told of a "woman [who] loudly vomited the moment I entered [on stage] during the Lincoln Center Library-taped performance of Kafka's 'The Castle.' " No one likes a mess. During a performance of "The Best Man" on Broadway, a patron in the balcony threw up over railing and into the orchestra (so much for premium seating).
It's OK to dress comfortably. I stopped being a tsk-tsker here years ago. Want to dress up to the nines, go right ahead. And you'll look marvelous. But IF you want to wear jeans and sneakers, be my guest, sport. It's all good. Almost. I draw the line with tank tops, shorts and flip-flops — which I saw at one opening night this summer in the Berkshires. That is, unless you have Mr. Manganiello's body, and even then...
Don't compete with the actors for attention: Jeffrey Hatcher shares a story an actor told him during a performance at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida when an elderly man made a scene getting up from his seat by saying loudly, "I am going to have a bowel movement." As he oh-so-slowly hobbled up the aide with his cane, he suddenly stopped, turned around and announced to the crowd, "False alarm" and returned to his seat.
Bathroom penalty: If you must leave your seat during a performance, when you want to return — stop. Stay in the back of the theater until there is a scene change. Better yet, wait until intermission or remain until the end of the show. You disturbed people once. Don't compound the slight.
Stay for the curtain call: Even if you hated the play, show some class and politely applaud — though you don't have to join the now-meaningless standing ovation. But if you're trying to dash for the parking lot while the players are taking their bows, just try getting past me, toots. Manners be damned.
"MRS. MANNERLY'' plays through Nov. 17 at its theater at 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Previews continue; opening night is Friday, Oct. 18. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2:30 and 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 2;30 p.m. Tickets are $50 to $65. Student Rush tickets are $15. Saturday matinees tickets for seniors are $35. Running time is 90 minutes without an intermission. Information: 860-527-7838.