Monday, August 4, 2014

Manners and Marceau

There is an encroaching lack of civility, of manners in our society. It is getting worse. And when you go out to spend your hard-earned dollars, well, as they say: you pays your money, you takes your chances. Perhaps the play isn’t as good as the review stated, the artist is having an off night — disappointing, to be sure. But to have the experience marred by the audience is not something I want to get used to.

I may be turning into a cranky older woman but I don’t think my expectations of others are unreasonable. There is a code of behavior when one is in public. At least I think so.

Let me start with an experience from a while ago.

Everyone has one or two favorite artists for whom they would gladly go out and get a loan to pay for the ticket if they came to town. Mine are Bette Midler and Marcel Marceau. Marcel Marceau, without question the greatest artist of pantomime in the world, died in 2007. I am so grateful to have seen him several times and have sadness that not everyone in the world saw him perform. I will never forget his last appearance in Minneapolis, in 2004 at the Pantages Theatre. Marceau was, of course, flawless. The audience, however, was not.

One thing I loved about seeing Marcel Marceau was the experience of sitting in a theater with 1,000 other people in absolute silence. Alas, this time, it was not to be.

I don’t remember how long the performance had been going on. I don’t think it was more than twenty minutes or so. That’s when, from directly behind me, I heard the sound of a straw being rubbed up and down in a drinking glass. You know the sound: the plastic straw in the little plastic hole in the plastic lid? A few minutes after that, I heard a woman’s voice in a not-too-soft whisper, “Isn’t he gonna say anything?” A man’s voice replied, “I dunno …” This went on for a while, the chatter back and forth, a few giggles. When intermission arrived I turned to Jane and warned her I was going to say something to them as soon as they came back to their seats with another Big Gulp.

When the offending couple returned and got themselves adjusted in their seats, I began to turn in my seat to say something but was beaten to it by the woman on the other side of Jane. (I was relieved. I hate confrontation.) She conveyed my sentiments exactly.

“I need to tell you that you are being very rude!” she said, forcefully.

“Uh … what?” the man said with a complete lack of comprehension.

“This is the greatest mime in the world, one of the greatest artists of all time, and you are TALKING through his performance! Please be quiet!”

With that, she sat down. I heard the woman behind me make a short exhaling sound that, if translated, meant “God, what a bitch …”

The performance was marred by this incident but not ruined. Anyone who had the pleasure of witnessing Marceau’s art knows that nothing could destroy it. But it did leave me asking this: Why would someone buy a rather expensive ticket to a performance by an artist they know nothing about? Nothing. You just say “Hey, there’s some French guy at the Pantages. Wanna go hear him?”
“I don’t know. What does he do?”

“Yeah. No idea. Let’s spend a whole wad of money and find out.”

And when you get to the theater and see that it is, indeed, a mime, that you are sitting with people who are all quiet, watching, you do — what? Start talking while lustily sucking down your soda? Get out your remote and try to change the channel?

Last night, my spouse and I went to the Guthrie to see Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike.
We ended up enjoying the play, but only because I had done my meditation that day and was doing my best to practice mindfulness.

We stood in the line for rush tickets, got great seats on the end of a row, which meant that we would be getting up and down to allow people in to their seats. No problem! Fine with this! Our row filled two by two. Jane and I stood each time, pressed ourselves as far back against the folded seat as possible, allowing people to pass. We smiled. They smiled. Two women passed us to get to their seats. They stopped in front of us, their bodies two inches away from ours, to discuss if one had left something in the car but, no, oh wait, here it is! They weren’t there more than 15 seconds, but what made it difficult was their perfume. (Just keep track of 15 seconds, if you don’t think it’s a long time to have a stranger’s body next to yours, a stranger who bathed in some kind of pool of Eau de Choke-Your-Neighbor.)

I was relieved that they were not sitting in the seats next to us but concerned about the people around whom they did sit. I returned to practicing mindfulness. I said to myself:
They are where they are. Back to the present. Here and now. Let the thoughts about the insensitive, scented people pass through …

There. Better.

The play began. Approximately five minutes in, an usher walked down the aisle to seat a couple five rows ahead of us. Rude, I found myself thinking. Let it go, Ann, let it go. Be in this theater, take in the play …

Five minutes later, the usher came down the aisle again, seating a couple two rows in front of us. Are you kidding? The entire row had to stand, obstructing the view of the stage for the rows behind them and distracting the audience from the play.

I understand people arriving late when the weather is bad — heavy rain, snow — I get it. On those occasions of inclement weather, even the best-laid plans to leave early still don’t work. But when it is a beautiful summer night, not a freakin’ cloud in the sky, and just a light breeze? Do I know what it’s like to get ready to go out when you have kids? No, I don’t. I do know what it’s like to stand on a stage and watch people arrive late, annoy everyone around them and disrupt the audience’s focus and enjoyment. Let’s have some planning, people.

Here’s a hopeful sign: I’ve noticed that several theaters have inserted a note in the program saying they reserve the right to ask people to leave if they are being disruptive. This not only applies to people talking, but also to those who are texting or checking their email on their so-called smartphones. This is progress! But here’s another idea: Each theater will have a row of terribly uncomfortable wooden chairs in the very back. And if you are late, THAT is where you sit until intermission. It will be called The Late Row. We’ll get Target, Cargill or 3M to sponsor it.

You want to sit at home in your underwear and watch a movie, eat and drink, check your email, text your friends about the movie and make commentary throughout? Go for it! It’s your house!

I am not going to stay home because I don’t want to deal with the few people who were never taught how to behave in public. I will continue to go out and support live performance. And if someone shows a distinct lack of manners, I vow to say something. Politely.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


When I heard the news about Pete Seeger — when I heard that we would not have this blessed man walking the earth any longer — I cried.

Throughout the day, I listened to various programs on public radio paying tribute to Pete Seeger’s life. On The Takeaway, John Hockenberry spoke with Dr. Alan Chartock, the CEO of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio and friend of Pete. Dr. Chartock made the comment that everyone has a Pete story.

My Pete story involves Minnesota Public Radio and a program called The Morning Show. I honestly cannot remember what the occasion was, but I was invited along with Kate MacKenzie and some others to come to Studio M for a taping. I walked in the studio and there, sitting in a chair with his banjo in his lap, was Pete Seeger. I wondered if this is what it felt like to meet God. For sure it is what it feels like to be in the presence of a person who has been true to his inner voices. It was a holy moment.

He was a songwriter, sure. And a darn fine musician. More than that, he was a troubadour who raised his voice and helped us believe we could make a difference just by raising our voices along with him. He’d start playing his guitar or his beloved banjo and pretty soon the whole room was singing along. Simple and pure. No fancy amplifiers or effect pedals.

I picked up the guitar when I was about 12 or 13. No matter how dark or painful my adolescent life felt, I had the guitar. I believe it saved my life. And the first songs I learned to play were mostly Pete’s: “If I Had A Hammer,” “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” “Turn, Turn, Turn.” I learned songs by Peter, Paul and Mary and The Kingston Trio and discovered that they were singing Pete’s songs too.

I am grateful to have met Pete Seeger. It was a moment I hope I will never forget.

This past year, along with Dan Chouinard, I have been helping to lead a sing-along in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood of St. Paul. The songs range from folk to Broadway to the Carpenters and everything in between but rarely do we have an evening when we do not sing a song that Pete brought into our lives. The February sing will be an All Pete sing-along, and you are invited to bring your favorite Seeger song. Come with your guitar, banjo, dulcimer, but especially bring your voice. Usually, our sing-alongs are the third Monday of every month, but in February we are going to meet on Sunday afternoon, February 9th, at Luther Seminary, Olson Student Center, 2nd level, 1490 Fulham, St. Paul. We’ll gather at 2:30, and the singing starts at 3:00.

There are sing-alongs happening all over the country — people gathering, teaching new songs, harmonizing on the old ones. It is a beautiful thing.

Thank you, Pete. We will carry it on.