To many, Patti LuPone is a folk heroine because she snatched a phone away from an audience member who was texting during her performance. At a July 8 performance of Shows for Days, LuPone, fed up with a texter, finished her line and grabbed the phone just after her exit line. She handed the cell phone to the theater manager. Theater fans at the show blew up social media (well, as much as social media can blow up when Patti LuPone’s the story) with the tale of the diva’s act, and LuPone herself released a statement rightly pointing out that “We work hard on stage to create a world that is being totally destroyed by a few, rude, self-absorbed and inconsiderate audience members who are controlled by their phones. They cannot put them down. When a phone goes off or when a LED screen can be seen in the dark it ruins the experience for everyone else—the majority of the audience at that performance and the actors on stage. I am so defeated by this issue that I seriously question whether I want to work on stage anymore.”
LuPone was right to be upset. Unless it’s an emergency (and we still don’t know what was the texter’s deal), one shouldn’t text during a live performance. It’s bad enough to text at a movie theater, where you’re bothering fellow patrons, but at a theater, with the lights dimmed, the bright LED screen from a cell would be distracting for anyone.
That being said, LuPone doesn’t get to be the police and steal phones, either. This act of citizen policing is another incident that builds up the difficult image that has followed the Tony-winning actress/singer throughout her career.
The end of her statement hints that she may leave live theater because of the prevalence of cellphones. Though I think she’s a supremely talented singer and actress, that may not be the worst idea. A difficult part of live performing is that it’s, well, live. Because a singer is singing in front of people, she cannot control the elements, nor can she control how the audience will respond. She also cannot control the behavior. Being a live performer in the 21st century means understanding that folks seem to be glued to their cellphones (I’m sure a few folks in the balcony were also filming LuPone’s performance that night – every time I go to a concert, and I see cellphones held up like lighters).
Interestingly enough, this wasn’t the first time that LuPone did something like this during a show. Back in 2009, while in Gypsy, LuPone stopped during “Rose’s Turn,” to demand that a guy with a flash camera be thrown out of the theater. As with the texting incident, LuPone rightly pointed out that flash photography upsets performers and can be very distracting (the image of an irate LuPone reacting to flash photography reminds me of warnings not to use flash photography in certain parts of the zoo).
In a blog post from back in 2006, LuPone wrote about her issues with theater – essentially grousing that she can’t control the audiences that come. She complains about the folks in the front row dozing off during the production, or boorish clods eating and getting tanked. But she makes a good point by saying “[theater] is a dying art from,” yet still she wants her audiences to be elegant. “It’s just not done in the theatre or shouldn’t be,” she primly notes. It’s interesting because it feels as if Patti LuPone’s role isn’t just Evita Peron or Gypsy Rose Lee, but also of Emily Post.
But though what LuPone did was understandable, it was also a little silly. And self-contradictory. You don’t teach etiquette by then misbehaving. If I’m at a dinner party, and am offended by a guest’s table manners, my response wouldn’t be to humiliate him in front of my other guests (“Elbows off the table, what, were you raised in a barn?”), but hold my tongue and wait till the dinner’s over before losing my shit. And depending on how well I knew the pleb, I may have a word with him in private.
LuPone should’ve finished up as she did and then had a word with the theater manager – who should have his/her ushers patrol the seats from time to time to make sure that cellphones aren’t being used during the show. As I wrote earlier, she should seriously consider devoting her career to film, television, and the recording studio, if live performances can be too unpredictable. With a film or CD, a performer can control all the elements, and not have to worry about dummies taking photographs, texting, eating, or sleeping. Her departure would definitely be a loss to the theater world, but gaining notoriety as a temperamental scold isn’t the greatest PR, either.