I recently realized, with more than a shudder or two, I’ve been attending, or as I like to say, “going to,” the theatre for over 41 years. I started while in high school (Yay, Hackensack, my alma mater), on Dec. 18th, 1970 with a Wednesday matinee of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company”, bought the cast album, (my first) that very night, and have never looked back. I’ve gone to the theatre in NYC, in New Jersey (having appeared in about 50 plays in my home state as well), in San Francisco (ah, the joys of the ACT theatrical home on Geary Street), and, of course, London, where my favorite theatrical haunt is the hallowed ground known as the Royal National Theatre, founded in 1963 by Sir Laurence Olivier and his company, and fictionalized, in part, in a wonderful play by Austin Pendleton called “Orson’s Shadow”, which is peopled with such real characters as Orson Welles, Joan Plowright, Vivien Leigh, Sir Larry himself and concerns the tribulations of putting on a production of Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros”, and is also a very frank, very candid, very FUNNY play, yet, to my knowledge, has never been performed in London, at the National (where it would be a natural) or elsewhere. I keep asking actors I know who know Mr. Pendleton, to unravel the mystery of why the National would never embrace a play about their own history, especially one as good as “Orson’s Shadow”, but I’ve yet to get an answer. Perhaps the National chooses to sugarcoat its beginnings in theatrical gloss instead of a whiff of scandal, since a few seasons ago, there was a production of Alan Bennett’s “The Habit Of Art”, which took place in a rehearsal hall at the National, and spun a somewhat embarrassing hosanna to the institution towards the end of its second act that even British actors who’d worked there found a little over the top. Why oh why, with a revival of the play coming this Spring off-Broadway in NYC, won’t the National do a production of a play set in its early days? Too scandalous for London? I would think, at this point, NOTHING would be too scandalous for London. Perhaps we shall never know.
But I digress. As I have a habit of doing.
In the forty plus years I’ve been going to the theatre, much has changed. And it’s not just the absurdly out of control prices. Two hundred bucks to see Hugh Jackman in what was essentially a Las Vegas extravaganza? Not me, brother. I recall the day I went to the box office of the brand spanking new Minskoff Theatre to get a Saturday night ticket to see Debbie Reynolds and Monte Markham(now look him up in your Funk and Wagnall’s) in the John Gielgud-directed revival of “Irene” and was told, “that’ll be fifteen dollars, please”. “HOW MUCH”, I replied haughtily, knowing full well I was going to pay it no matter what. Or what about the then-absurd 50 dollar price tag back in 1982 to see the British phenomenon (Now And Forever) “Cats”, a price justified by the head of the Shubert Organization back then as necessary because the theater would have to be rebuilt once “Cats” closed. Uh-huh. Sure. When “Cats” closed, 18 plus years later, they just tore out the set and set up “Mama Mia”, which still runs today, and three times the price of the original ticket for “Cats” and half the scenery. If the theater was rebuilt in 2001, I don’t think I’m the only one who missed it when it happened. But I’m not paying 200 bucks to see anyone on stage. Period.
And now, let’s get to other little annoyances, like higher prices for aisle seats, much higher prices for any seat in the center orchestra, and ah yes, the ubiquitous lighting computer consoles which take up an entire back row and serve to illuminate the show and anyone who has the ill fortune to sit in the row ahead of one of them. And which at any point in the show, can become a gathering place for anyone who works in the theater to sit and chew the fat. Or talk shop. Or just waste time and talk endlessly about nothing in particular. Try enjoying the show you’ve spent a small fortune upon while that’s going on behind you.
Then there’s the cell phone, the bane of any audience member or working actor’s onstage existence. First of all, forty years ago, if there was going to be an emergency, if you suspected there was going to be an emergency, you left your name and your seat number with the house manager and when said emergency happened, they’d come and get you. And yet, with all the shows I saw up until the advent of the cell phone, I never saw it happen once. Never saw anyone roused from their seat during a performance for an earth-shaking, honest to goodness “emergency”, and although I’m fairly sure it might have happened a few times, with all the shows I attended, I never saw it happen once. Now-you have the most annoyingly absurd ringtones going off during performances, you have people(and I use the term lightly) ANSWERING their phones during a performance, and you actually have nitwits having a conversation from their their seats during a performance. Not to mention the texting. Actors have stopped the show to protest. I’ve seen Laurence Fishburne do it. Richard Griffiths has walked off the stage to protest it. Nathan Lane has yelled at people for it. I wish I could remember the actress who walked to the edge of the stage and said, “Go ahead. Finish your call. we’ll all wait while you do”. Sounds like Elaine Stritch to me. Yet to my knowledge, no one has ever been ejected for it. Why? Perhaps it has to do with what they’re paying for their tickets, and the fact that with all that wine, beer, candy, pretzels, junk food, souvenir cups of $10 soda, Spiderman bobble heads, and mints in their lap, it would be just be way too intrusive to ask one of these clowns to move. Sadly, it continues, and yet, I can’t recall a single instance during a show in London where I heard a cell phone go off during a performance. Not saying it hasn’t happened, just saying I’ve never been witness to it. But selling ice cream from the aisles during intermission was going on in London well before the scourge started here, so maybe the Brits aren’t really that blameless for lack of etiquette in the theatre.
Now if only the National would do a production of “Orson’s Shadow”……