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Suzanne Perez Tobias: Whatever happened to audience etiquette?

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, March 13, 2013, at 9:55 p.m.

Last week in this space, I praised the value of fine arts education.

Since then, I attended an orchestra concert at my daughter’s high school that proved some additional education clearly needs to happen:

A crash course in audience etiquette.

That concert, an evening performance in a beautiful, comfortable, recently renovated auditorium, was intended to showcase the talents of two schools’ orchestra departments.

During it, I saw members of the audience – adults, mostly – talking, playing games on brightly lit smartphones, getting up while the orchestra was playing, loudly slamming doors at the back of the auditorium, taking flash photos and failing to silence phones after repeated beeps, buzzes and obnoxious ringtones.

One orchestra director said a recording of the performance, filmed from the balcony and intended to preserve some solos for academic purposes, was “unusable” because of all the chatter and other noise.

When did this become OK?

The answer, of course: It isn’t.

Anyone who has been to a movie theater or attended a concert or other live performance recently will tell you that common courtesy and audience behavior isn’t what it used to be. At times, in fact, it seems almost hopeless.

How can youngsters learn appropriate concert behavior when their role models – moms, dads and other adults – are behaving so poorly and disrespectfully?

Several years ago, I took my two children to a matinee show at a local movie theater. As we waited for the curtain to rise, a couple with three elementary-age boys entered the theater and took their seats – the two adults toward the front of the auditorium and the boys more than a dozen rows back, a few seats away from me.

At first I thought it odd that the couple would sit so far away from their kids, but assumed it was some kind of family tradition. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that. As long as the youngsters behaved, I thought, no problem.

Unfortunately, they didn’t. Throughout the previews, the boys talked loudly, threw popcorn at one another and kicked the seats in front of them. The adults who had brought them were oblivious, not even turning their heads to check on the boys.

When the movie started and the youngsters still hadn’t settled down, I spoke up.

“Excuse me,” I said loud enough for the patrons around us to hear. “We’re trying to watch the movie, and I’d appreciate it if you would be quiet so we can enjoy it.”

The boys’ eyes grew wide, their voices silent and their feet still. It’s amazing what a little friendly reminder can do.

I didn’t offer similar reminders at the recent music performance, save a few pointed glares. But chatting with a few parents afterward and with other Wichitans via social media, I’m clearly not alone in my frustration.

“It’s just infuriating,” a teacher friend said. “Not only are the ‘adults’ being horribly rude to all those who’ve worked so hard and to the other audience members, they’re setting a terrible example for the little ones around them.

“If you can’t go an hour or two (without) playing on your phone, just stay home.”

I realize school concerts are a bit different than professional events such as the Wichita Symphony Orchestra or Music Theatre of Wichita. There are likely to be parents recording the performance, younger siblings who get restless, babies who cry, or families who need to leave quickly for one reason or another.

I also realize my children’s behavior isn’t perfect. Jack brought a handheld video game to pass the time before the concert – his sister had to be there 45 minutes early – and I had to remind him to turn it off when the house lights dimmed.

But generally, it seems that audience etiquette and respect for others is a rare commodity.

“I don’t think all of these people are purposely being rude,” a friend said afterward on Facebook. “I really think they are … oblivious of proper etiquette.”

Maybe so. Which is why I believe in friendly reminders.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SuzanneTobias.

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