Don't upstage: The state of arts-going etiquette

When the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performed a Jerry Garcia tribute last year, some audience members used the show to relive concertgoing practices appropriate for a Grateful Dead show. They wore tie-dye, danced down the aisles and reportedly smoked marijuana in the hallowed crevices of Heinz Hall.

“It was the happiest audience I’ve ever seen,” said Michael Bielski, PSO senior vice president and chief operating officer. They high-fived him and offered to buy him drinks. “They were a happy crowd. They weren’t a rowdy crowd.”

Classical music performances don’t generally call for, ahem, enhancement, and last year’s concert was an exception. Still, it signals shifting attitudes on behavior at live performances and the resulting need for cultural organizations to adjust to a more casual arts-going culture.

In general, these groups mention policies in preshow announcements, programs and tickets. In most cases, cell phones, recording devices, food, drink and excessive talking are prohibited, and varying rules dictate when or if latecomers can enter. But while changing technology and attitudes challenge pre-existing etiquette, they also represent an opportunity to welcome new audiences.

Theater: Late seats and well-timed tweets

Joe Manganiello, a Mt. Lebanon native best known for HBO’s “True Blood,” returned to his theatrical roots honed at Carnegie Mellon University when he played Stanley Kowalski in a Yale Repertory Theatre production of “A Streetcar Name Desire” last year. During one performance, a patron refused to stop taking cell phone pictures.

When he was offstage, Mr. Manganiello tried tweeting to the audience member to stop, with no luck. Finally, in the midst of a scene, he stayed in character, turned to the culprit and asked, “Can you stop with the camera? You have no idea how distractin’ it is!” He then returned to complete the scene.

Technology’s influence on theaters is a draw or a drawback — depending on whom you ask. Some theater and music organizations are attempting to harness the power of social media during live performances. For the interactive-conscious Bricolage, communications manager Kari Zavolta implemented the “Tweet Seats” initiative at the company’s intimate Downtown venue.

“I researched local bloggers, tweeters and other social media personalities that I felt had the type of audience that we wanted to reach,” Ms. Zavolta said. “The Tweet Seats were comped to our guests and were for opening night only.” All Tweet Seats were in the back row and tweeters were asked to dim their screens. “We ask that the tweeters give out teasers and quotes from the show, as well as their honest opinions of the work.”

Still, all but the most experimental arts organizations agree: Use of cell phones during a live performance is a no-no. “Silence your cell phones” is an admonishment made before most live shows and met with varying degrees of compliance.

Beyond the obstacles presented by new technology, some issues are timeless, such as misreading the time on the ticket or getting stuck in traffic.

Employing parking and dining strategies can minimize chances for a late arrival to a Pittsburgh Cultural District venue. For example, if there is a Pirates or Steelers game across the river and several theaters are active, you’ve got some planning to do, whether making dinner reservations or taking advantage of public transportation.

On the strictest end of the spectrum, City Theatre on the South Side does not allow late seating. The policy is printed on the back of tickets, on the website’s parking page and in emailed performance reminders. Box-office phone operators are required to reiterate the policy when patrons call for tickets. Late arrivals are offered re-seating – at another performance.

Food is another potential annoyance and convenience inside an auditorium. Most venues don’t allow food, but drinks are becoming another story. At the Benedum, for example, $6 no-spill plastic cups with straws are now available. In the piped-in preshow message before Pittsburgh CLO performances, executive director Van Kaplan reminds patrons to please unwrap candy in advance.

The classical animal

In 2012, two older women began to bicker during a Pittsburgh Opera production of Mozart’s “The Abduction From the Seraglio.” One shorter woman asked the woman in front to move, but she refused, prompting an argument. Both were escorted out of the hall.

“Tall Lady was allowed to come [back] because it was determined she was not at fault,” said Debra Bell, director of marketing and communications.

Observations from PSO and opera staff illuminate the extent to which concertgoing practices vary by audience and have relaxed over time. Attire, for instance, used to be more formal and now runs the gamut. During much of the 20th century, audience members – many of them European immigrants – would dress up as was customary in their home countries, the PSO‘‍s Mr. Bielski said. The grumbles that accompanied the entry of casual clothing since the 1980s have largely subsided.

Now, “the younger [audience members] are, they’re either really dressed up or they’re not dressed up at all,” Mr. Bielski said. He believes even the long-standing tradition of musicians wearing tails at concerts could eventually go by the wayside.

At Pittsburgh Opera, young people have come clad in prom dresses and tiaras, using the show as an opportunity to dress up. On the other hand, two longtime subscribers wear Steelers jerseys or NASCAR gear to the Tuesday performances they attend.

“There are no longer any rules about what is expected,” said Christopher Hahn, general director. “Audience members decide for themselves,” although opening night tends to attract more fashionably inclined attendees.

Applause is another issue. Fifty years ago, no one would clap in between the movements of one work. With the entry of new audiences in roughly the past decade, it has started to bleed into pieces, Mr. Bielski said.

A recent performance of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” – which is four violin concertos performed together – received the most applause between movements he’s seen in attending concerts for 45 years. The flow was so disrupted that before remaining performances of the piece, the PSO made an announcement asking audience members to curb their clapping, Mr. Bielski said. 

If changing concertgoing practices reflect a more casual society, they also signal a return to earlier attendance styles. The notion of being quiet during an opera, with lights dimmed in the hall, the idea of the performance as “a temple,” was an invention of Richard Wagner, the eminent operatic composer of the 19th century. “He wanted never to break the concentration with applause and chatter,” Mr. Hahn said. The approach changed listening practices and attitudes, prioritizing sound above all.

“This was a shock to late 19th- and 20th-century audiences,” Mr. Hahn said. “This [Wagnerian] sense of etiquette has only been around for about [120-140] years, and before that it was more rough-and-tumble.”

Before Wagner, wealthy, serious operagoers would sit up front; other audience members were accustomed to talking through performances, in well-lit, active side boxes that permitted eating “much like a baseball game,” he said.

The resulting standards of behavior emphasize music above all, particularly given that classical performances are acoustic. 

“The classical world does need attention to be paid to the sound,” Mr. Hahn said.

Given the traditions behind the music, “the classical animal is always going to be the last to change,” Mr. Bielski said. 

Still, not everyone got the message. “You get the occasional intoxicated person, but mostly they just snore,” said the opera’‍s Ms. Bell.  “There’s more noise if you wake them up.”

Today, Pittsburgh Opera says etiquette is designed with the idea of making the customer happy. But what makes one listener happy could irk another.

Ms. Bell recalled a time when a person took out a full meal during a production. “I think it was curry,” she said. “How they got it in was a different story.”

The Benedum Center, where Pittsburgh Opera stages its main productions, uses ushers from the Cultural Trust. Occasionally, that creates differences between when the company would prefer latecomers to sit and when they actually are seated. The Benedum‘‍s plastic cups with straws also compel patrons to rattle ice or slurp.

Hypothetically, latecomers are seated during a natural break, such as following an overture. A Post-Gazette staff member said one of the most powerful moments of Puccini’s “La Boheme” – when Mimi and Rodolfo declared their love for each other – was ruined this past spring when a group of latecomers forced an entire row in front of her to stand up, blocking her view.

The company uses its own ushers and has more control at smaller venues, including Pittsburgh’‍s CAPA 6-12 and its own headquarters.

Musician contracts frequently forbid the use of recording devices, a rule that comes up against society’s ever-increasing reliance on smartphones. “Now, it just seems churlish and not very user-friendly to tell people not to take pictures,” Mr. Hahn said.

On Wednesday, the PSO will experiment with “Tweet Seats” at a joint performance with Boyz II Men; cell phones are strictly banned at traditional classical music concerts.

The PSO hands out cough drops at Heinz Hall, preferring crackly unwrapping to loud coughing. Following a hall renovation in 1995, acoustics were improved and food (namely, candy with loud wrappers) was no longer sold at classical concerts, according to Joyce DeFrancesco, director of media relations. Since then, sales of food have come and gone, said Mr. Bielski, and the hall offers candy at some non-classical shows. 

Ultimately, the goal is to preserve the concert experience. 

“I still think when the lights go down,” said Mr. Bielski, “it’s special.”

Dancing around the issue

Excessive tardiness is not out of hand at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre performances, said Meghan McNamara, marketing and media relations manager. But the company has been more proactive lately about giving ticket holders a heads-up regarding other events that could cause traffic delays or parking issues. Preperformance emails are sent to patrons that outline this information.

Those who are a few minutes late still are permitted to quietly find their seats. But once people "enter the territory of possibly missing details because of the distraction [of people finding their seats], we have to ask latecomers to wait in the lobby," Ms. McNamara said. If room is available near the back of the orchestra section or the first tier of the balcony level, late arrivers will be ushered to those seats to minimize disruption.

"We try to do our best to make sure they don't miss too much of the performance," she said.

Photography is not permitted, as the flashes can be distracting to others and potentially dangerous to performers. The same goes for cell phones.

Regular sections reserved for social media usage have not been introduced to PBT performances, Ms. McNamara said, although the ballet has experimented with the idea. At a few performances the company has welcomed Elaine Labalme to tweet on behalf of Kidsburgh Pittsburgh. She often was accompanied by her son or husband and wove their reactions into tweets. They were seated near the back of the orchestra section out of courtesy to others.

"Allowing people to share in their own words and in the moment the special effect that ballet can have and just kind of the power it has to transport you and generate thought and just affect everybody in a different way, that type of more organic conversation is really valuable," Ms. McNamara said.

At Pittsburgh Dance Council performances, which are mostly held at the Byham Theater, policies for late arrivals are determined for each production. Most often, there is no late seating offered on the main floor. If seats are open in the back of the balcony, those who come while the performance is in progress will be directed there.

While they wait to enter the theater, they can view the performance on a monitor. Once inside, use of all electronic devices is strictly prohibited.

Elizabeth Bloom: or 412-263-1750. Sharon Eberson: or 412-263-1960. Sara Bauknecht: or 412-263-3858.

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