Philly Theater Etiquette 101: Shut Up

Anecdotal evidence that the epic rudeness of arts-loving Philadelphians spans across all racial, economic and class barriers

I know now that we should’ve switched seats at intermission. But on Tuesday night, as my blood pressure rose and my teeth clenched, I thought perhaps my furious thoughts would somehow transfer from my brain to the brains of others.

As my friend Paul and I settled into our seats at the Arden Theatre for their excellent staging of Tracey Letts’s acclaimed play August: Osage County, we were eager for the show to begin. For the first time, we’d splurged and subscribed to the entire season and this was our first show of the year.

And then we heard them.

A group of well-dressed middle-aged women sat in the row behind us. Before the show began, they chatted loudly, often exclaiming about things they read in the program.

Oh, he’s been on Law & Order!

I thought their volume was a tad impolite but didn’t dwell on it since the show hadn’t started. (And frankly, I was busy refreshing the Phillies score on my Blackberry, so I wasn’t in a position to judge.) As the lights went down and the play began, the chatter didn’t stop.

One of the women narrated one actor’s every move.

She’s still serving food!

Look, she’s reading a book in the attic!

Another woman gasped audibly and tsk-tsked when characters made decisions she didn’t approve of. Another loudly predicted important plot points mere seconds before they happened.

[sigh] He’s dead.

They’re going to kiss!

I spent the first intermission—though it is extremely well-paced, August: Osage County clocks in at about three and a half hours so there are two breaks—glaring at the women as they discussed a recent trip to New York to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. This only infuriated me more, since it showed they were frequent theater-goers and as far as I’m concerned, should know to the shut the bleep up during a performance.

The non-stop commentary continued through the second and third acts. While I loved the show—go see it!—I inevitably felt cheated of the emotional experience because of the distraction created by these non-stop blabbermouths. A few days later, I vented to a friend who attended the show two nights later. I was irked to learn that she’d had a similar experience. In addition to her own annoyance about the incessant talking, she learned that other audience members were equally pissed when she stood out front smoking a cigarette during the intermission.

The Arden isn’t alone in attracting discourteous customers. The epic rudeness of Philadelphians spans across all racial, economic and class barriers. (Need some anecdotal evidence?  During a screening of Bridesmaids at the Pearl a few months ago, I cringed as two different people answered their cell phones.  Months before that, I walked out of a Fringe Festival show because a man two rows away was so impressed with his own snarky commentary that he loudly shared it with everyone sitting nearby. )

Just as it is inappropriate to cut in line at the grocery store or to curse out your mailman because your favorite magazine didn’t arrive, it is common courtesy to zip it during movies, lectures and live theater. If you want to talk your way through a baseball game, that’s cool with me. Chat on the subway? Fine. I don’t even really care if you want to have a long conversation in the library. But when you—and others—have paid money to see a performance, it’s time to close your mouths and keep your opinions to yourself.

My point here is simple: Philadelphians, please, just shut up.