What were we thinking? Who were we kidding? Did we really think that the segment of the theatre audience made up of entitled assholes would adhere to a mask mandate?
You know to whom I‘m referring. They are the folks who text throughout a performance, or bring food or drink into an auditorium, or engage in a conversation with their seat neighbor like they’re sitting on a living room couch, or plop down in a seat other than theirs until the rightful ticket owner shows up, or just have to take a picture of their son/daughter/friend/partner in the show. Don’t they look GREAT in their costume?!
Did we really expect them to wear a mask for a whole 60, or 75, or – tyranny of tyrannies – 90 minutes?
I had hope. I really did. I’ve attended four indoor productions since theatres have been allowed to reopen under County Health Order mandates. I have seen theatres turn away patrons without proof of vaccination. I have been to shows that play to half-empty houses that adhere to capacity limits. I have seen actors emote through plastic shields. I have seen audiences remain masked throughout an entire performance.
Maybe we will get through this, I thought. Maybe the theatre community really gets it.
Unfortunately, some of them don’t.
I attended the Saturday evening performance of the Ross Valley Players production of Ripcord at the Barn Theatre in the Marin Art and Garden Center in Ross. It’s a show I’ve enjoyed in the past and was genuinely interested in what the company and cast – some of who are friends – would do with it. It would be the first in-theatre Marin County production I would have the opportunity to review.
I was asked for my ID and proof of vaccination at the door, gladly provided it, and sat on a bench outside the theatre waiting for the house to open. I witnessed an individual who arrived without the required proof graciously being turned away (and how much clearer do companies’ websites/social media posts/emails have to be for people to get this?)
When the house opened, I took my traditional rear-of-the-house seat and watched a masked audience take their seats. I noted one of the company members approaching an audience member who had lowered her mask and asking her to kindly raise it. She complied.
The last people to enter right before the lights dimmed was a group of four that I had noticed while sitting on the bench out front. They had purchased two tickets in advance and hoped to purchase two more. They were told it was a sold-out show, but that if there were no-shows five minutes before curtain they would be accommodated. I had counted fewer than fifty in the audience moments before so I wasn’t surprised when they took seats in the row behind me.
What did surprise me was that immediately after taking their seats, one member of the party removed his mask. He sat and engaged in a conversation with his masked seatmates. And then the lights went down.
I was flustered for a few minutes while I debated with myself about going over and saying something. Might an usher take notice at some point? Would one of his party remind him to mask up? I did my best to stay focused on the play, but scene changes allowed me the opportunity to look his way and see that he remained unmasked.
At intermission, I stood up, walked over to his seat, bent down and quietly said, “Sir, we are required to remain masked while inside the theater. I would appreciate it if you would put your mask back on.” He nodded while giving a physical and facial impression that he had just forgotten and put his mask back on. The woman sitting next to him said “Thank you!” and I quietly exited to the outside to take a mask break myself.
When I returned at the end of intermission the man and woman were gone. Had I made them uncomfortable attending? Had they left the theater? The lights went down and the show resumed. They never returned.
Or so I thought.
As the lights came up at show’s end and the cast took their bows, a familiar gentleman stood up in a row up front – unmasked – and headed for the door, putting on his mask only as he headed up the aisle. Yes, the gentleman who had simply “forgotten” to put his mask on earlier just moved to another seat where he could be out of my sight.
I was stunned. How entitled does a person have to be to believe his need for comfort exceeds the need to protect the health of the unmasked cast, let alone the somewhat aged and at-risk audience around him?
I left the theater in somewhat of a daze. My anger built on the drive home. Did I do all that I should have done? Did the theatre do all that it should have done? What can I do? I love theatre too much to abandon it.
Well, I can notify the theatre of my experience. I can urge them to be more proactive. I can urge them to make a personal appeal to the audience to adhere to the mandate (a semi-humorous recorded announcement on the subject seems to have just as much effect as one getting people to turn off their cellphones.) I can encourage them to staff accordingly.
I did all that in an email to Karen Topakian, the press contact at Ross Valley Players. Here is her response:
I am so sorry to hear about this experience with COVID protocols and am grateful to you for sharing it with me privately first. Our collective health and safety is paramount. You are right to be concerned.
Since you’ve asked me to share your concerns with the RVP folks, I am cc’ing Steve Price and Ellen Goldman here directly.
…thank you again Harry for letting me know. We must do better.
I then heard from RVP Board Vice President and Executive Producer Steve Price:
Thanks, Harry, for coming to “Ripcord” and your concerns about audience behavior. We’ll add a live reminder before the show about not removing masks and instruct volunteer staff to be more diligent. I know when I was house manager, I surveyed the audience many times and reminded folks to keep masks on. It’s a challenge and has been and will be RVP’s priority always.
I appreciate their rapid response, and truly hope my experience will not be repeated.
Should I experience anything similar at a future production there or anywhere else, I will get up and notify an usher or staff member and if action isn’t taken, I will leave. In place of a review, I can simply state that the mask mandate was ineffectively enforced and I was unable to attend the full performance.
I will let theatres know in advance of my policy and leave it to them to decide if I am still welcome. I hope I am.
We’re not talking about the annoying light of a cell phone screen or the crinkling of a candy wrapper. We’re talking about the health of our community. We’re talking about life and death. Does the ticket money of a selfish, self-centered idiot outweigh that?
Has anyone thought of the ramifications of a serious illness or death being contact traced back to a theatre? Is that a risk a theatre company is willing to take?
Entitled assholes will be the death of theatre. Theatre and its practitioners mean too much to me to be a passive participant in that death.
I stayed up till the early Sunday morning hours writing the above. I shared an early draft with a colleague to get his reaction:
I closed my laptop with the intention of adding any response I received in the morning from the aforementioned company and then posting. I received a response, made my additions, and was in the final edit when I realized I had to head out for a matinee at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre. I emailed Artistic Director Argo Thompson to give him a “head’s up” regarding my new policy regarding audience behavior. He replied with a thank you and a note that they “have not, as of yet, had any audience member fail to follow our masking policy.”
You know where this is going, right?
I arrived at the theatre, provided proof of vaccination, and took my aisle seat in the small theater. As two ladies occupied the seats to my immediate left, I said that I was going to give them some room and moved back a row and down the aisle to some empty seats. The recorded curtain speech came on (which made no mention of the mask mandate) and the lights went down.
Which apparently is the fucking cue to lower your mask, because that is exactly what one of the ladies did. The stage lights came up and lit up her unmasked face. I waited a few moments, giving her some time to raise her mask without prodding, but it wasn’t going to happen. Remember, she waited for the lights to go down before lowering her mask. She knew exactly what she was doing, and she knew she shouldn’t be doing it. I got up, walked over to her, and quietly asked her to raise her mask. She did, but as I turned to return to my seat the unmasked visage of a gentleman seated to my right glowed in the theatre light. I waived my hand furiously in his direction, he nodded, and raised his mask.
I emailed the AD at intermission and spoke to the Stage Manager. I asked her to please consider making an intermission announcement reminding the audience of their responsibility. She delivered a short but pointed reminder after which the audience applauded. The show went on.
The AD’s response to my email arrived:
“We will have to do better.”
Which is what the folks at Ross Valley Players appear to have done at their Sunday matinee.
I received a text from a friend in attendance with a group at the RVP show shortly before the mutual 2:00 pm curtain time. She asked if they should be concerned about anything safety-related. My response:
“Look out for unmasked audience members.”
I asked her to let me know if there was a “live” mask reminder as I had suggested to the theatre. She said there was, but that there were “two totally unmasked people with no one saying anything.” I had to leave it at that as the curtain speech began at Left Edge, followed by my frustrating experience.
To conclude on as positive a note as is possible here, I checked in with her after the show and she updated me with the news that an RVP volunteer had walked up to the individual at the back of the theater and instructed her to put on her mask while the audience held the other person accountable.
Which is apparently what it is going to take if we expect live theatre to survive this. Theatre is going to have to do better. Audiences are going to have to do better. “We must do better” can’t just be a response to an email relaying concerns. Actions must be taken. Actions by all of us.
Entitled assholes can take action by just staying the fuck home.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to any organization of which he is a member or his employers.