At a recent theatrical performance I was reminded of a most interesting paradox. It is a commonly accepted fact that sound travels and that if you speak aloud people can hear you, moreover people other than the specific person you’re speaking to can hear you; however put people in a darkened theater during a live performance and a not small percentage will completely forget this fact. It’s almost like people think because you can’t see their lips move then you can’t hear them speak. It’s like when you played hide and seek as child and when you were about to be caught you closed your eyes putting your faith in the concept of “if I can’t see you, you can’t see me.” Never worked right?
I will note that most people are trying to whisper but all whispering does is make what you’re saying unintelligible; the sound of the “pssspssps psssps psspss” still travels. In most theaters you’re sitting half the width of an arm rest from your neighbor on each sides, and the length of a lap from those in front and behind you. Also, sound travels in ALL directions, it’s kind of indiscriminate that way; really sound is just an aural slut, it really doesn’t care whose ear it goes to.
Now I’m not completely unreasonable; there have been times when even I have leaned toward a companion and whispered a comment but it is a rare occurrence. There are unfortunately those who feel the need to discuss a performance in real time, or are so addled by the complexity of the plot that they need to have their companion narrate the production for them. And to be clear these are not children of whom I speak.
Unfortunately for those of us who have paid to hear the performers speak and not our seat companions there are few means of recourse in these situations. According to Miss Manners it is rude to correct other people’s rude behavior. One can deploy the librarian “shhhh” but that is as disturbing as the offenders’ actions. My most oft deployed tool is the “turn and frown.” I always give people the benefit of the doubt, I ignore the first whisper, even the second but by the third I turn in the general direction of the theater whisperer and frown in their direction. If the whispering continues I will turn, attempt to make eye contact and frown. In enough people in the general vicinity do this usually the whisperer will get the idea. Unfortunately this method cannot be deployed on those in front of you, there you’re just screwed.
I had one particular performance where the person sitting next to me felt the need to repeat any line in the play that amused them (and she was easily amused) and I tolerated it for the first act but no sooner had the curtain gone up for the second act than she was at it again and I was forced to whisper “Excuse me!” in such an incredulous tone of voice that she got the idea and mostly shut up for the second act. And do not tell me that you paid a lot of money for your ticket and you’ll do what you want; that logic means because I also paid a lot of money for my ticket I should get to tape your indiscriminately yapping mouth shut. But that would be rude, so I’m told.
I have yet to resort to the extreme act of asking the an usher to ask the yappers to stop but I can sense the day when my curmudgeon:polite ratio is going to tip the scale that way.
I will end on a friendly piece of advice to those of us advancing years or waning hearing; if you find you are having problems hearing what’s happening on stage nearly all theaters offer, at no additional cost, assistive listening devices so that you can properly follow the performance. Even the inestimable Angela Lansbury, during her last turn on Broadway, admitted she used an ear piece so that someone off stage could cue her in case she missed the verbal cues on stage. It’s all about making the best of the performance without anyone else noticing.