Wednesday, January 21, 2009

On the Unremitting, Unmitigated and Unbelievable Fury of Patti LuPone

Tonight I received an email from a friend and colleague, the monologuist Mike Daisey. He felt I might be piqued by a post he put up on his blog that features the now-infamous YouTube audio of Patti LuPone stopping dead in the middle of "Rose's Turn" to excoriate a shutterbug at the St. James Theatre. Oh, it's a caustic, cauterizing takedown by La LuPone, full of vitriol, exhaustion and the kind of monumental diva-thrashing that results from either an excess of adrenalin (she was playing Momma Rose, after all) but also a real excess of genuine annoyance that spills over into fury.

In his post, Daisey discusses how that annoyance can be manifest in any performative dynamic, from a cavernous Broadway house with the orchestra and production values pumping at full tilt, to one in which a monologuist sits with notes at a desk:

From my point of view as a performer I am sympathetic to Ms. LuPone's issues—I've had people take photographs at performances, and it is a pain in the ass. Since I'm not performing in a giant rock arena, photography really impacts—it's often painfully clear that it is happening, and it can be very disruptive.

For my money the biggest issue isn't flash photography, as most idiots know to turn their flash off. My bigger issue is AF-assist light, which is the orange light that comes on just before you take a picture—most people don't know how to disable it, and it shines right into my eyes when performing, and it sucks. I am hoping that cellphone cameras get better and better, WITHOUT AF-assist, so that when people take a picture it will be silent and inobtrusive.

But Daisey isn't playing Momma Rose (yet). Indeed, his roots in experimentation show clearly as he begins to form an ethico-historical -- I'm coining the phrase -- take on contemporary theater, on how see-it-now technology may force radical change in etiquette. More significant, Daisey is suggesting that see-it-now technology is already changing audiences' approach to theatre, how their expectations and investment in the memory of their immersion drives their behavior:

I may be different than other performers, but I have no issues with people recording my shows, both audio, still image, and video, so long as that recording in no way affects the experience of the room for me or for my audiences. I would further expect that if folks posted those materials to the net they wouldn't charge for them (duh) and that if I asked them to take something down, they would. I see recordings of live events like theater as fossil records—invaluable perhaps in generating a history, but ultimately frozen and lifeless and incapable of communicating what it was like to actually be there.
Forgetting for a moment that me-me-me-ness of LuPone losing it, Daisey takes Actors' Equity to task in the Gypsy context:

It is interesting to think about how this recording is not temporally bound, as theater is—now that GYPSY is over, the most enduring record of that experience exists at that YouTube link. It's the scarcity of the theatrical experience that makes it valuable over time, but in our modern age that scarcity of experience doesn't mean you can't find ways to communicate...

...but in fact, it does mean that. AEA regulations are complete straightjackets on recording live events, regardless or whether the recordings are used commercially or not, and it ends up killing the baby in the crib before we can see what the future might be.

It's also instructive how the tropes of the theater do and don't transfer to the net—in the YouTube comments a large number of people hold Ms. LuPone to task for her unprofessionalism. I'd argue that most of the talk in the theaterosphere considers other factors, like diva-hood and the rudeness of flash photography in performances—what interests me is how those tropes get flipped when folks from the outside world are suddenly inside the theater.
What I find interesting, in addition, is how all of this recalls a topic now considered so old hat that no one even thinks about it anymore: the ineffective prohibition against cell phones ringing in the theatre in New York City. I did a lot of reporting on this during my first few years at Back Stage, but as those stories are sequestered behind a pay-wall, let me refer to this article on from 2003:

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has vetoed the bill banning cell phone use, which was introduced Aug. 15, 2002, by Councilman Phil Reed at New York's City Hall.

The Associated Press reports that Bloomberg's letter to the city clerk said, "We do not hesitate to shush. Some standards of conduct, not directly affecting public health or safety, can best be enforced not through legislation but through less formal means.''

Bloomberg said that the bill, which would make cell phone use illegal "any place where members of the public assemble to witness cultural, recreational or educational activities," would be too difficult, if not impossible, to enforce.

The City Council does have enough votes to override the Mayor's veto; however, it is unclear when such a vote would take place. The New York City Council's Consumer Affairs Committee had passed the bill — by a vote of four to one — Nov. 19, 2002.

Councilman Reed previously said, "A lot of people — most people, a majority of people — want to obey the law. It's like the penal code, the health code — there's no smoking in a restaurant, people don't do it. But right now, turning off a cell phone is a request; it's not a law. If it's helpful to the management of the theatre, that's a good thing — it's empowering to be able to say, 'You're violating the law, it's against the law to talk on the phone, turn it off.' And if you have somebody who's going to continue to talk and talk and talk, the management can insist they stop. They can say, 'I'm going to get a police officer.'"
Well, yes, of course you could get a police officer. But I know of no case in which a police officer has arrested or otherwise de-celled a paying patron. I know of no case in which a shutterbug, illegally shooting the star, has been similarly de-lensed.

In fact, here is a compelling follow-up from 2007:

The law states, in part, "No person shall use a mobile telephone in a place of public performance while a theatrical, musical, dance, motion picture, lecture or other similar performance is taking place." It was introduced by City Councilman Phil Reed, who at the time represented the Eighth District of Manhattan, and was backed by 20 other Council members, including current City Council speaker Christine C. Quinn. Though Mayor Michael Bloomberg vetoed the bill at the time, calling it unenforceable, his veto was overridden by a Council vote of 38 to 5 on Feb. 13, 2003. The law went into effect 60 days later.

The victory, however, was apparently hollow. By almost all accounts, cell phone abuse in theatre has only increased. "I hate to say it, but no, things haven't changed," said Roy Harris, a busy stage manager who most recently worked on The Clean House at Lincoln Center Theater. "I asked Blair Brown, Jill Clayburgh and John Dossett [the stars of the show]. They all said no. One thing that is sort of different is other people are much more vocal toward other people whose phones go off. They express their anger."

....Even Reed, who left the City Council in 2006, had to admit that, on the surface of things, little has changed. He stressed, however, that the mere existence of the law has acted as a deterrent in unchartable ways; in short, that theatergoers now police themselves. "It's like when we got radar to detect speeding," he argued. "I happen to think there's more compliance because there's a knowledge of the law."

....Reed grudgingly agrees that enforcement is the Achilles Heel of the cell phone ban. "You have to find somebody to complain to about the cell phone," he explained, "and they have to come and someone has to witness the thing and blah, blah, blah." Surprisingly, though, he points the finger of blame not only at negligent mobile users but also at theatre owners and producers. A little-known section of the law instructs that "the owner, operator, manager or other person having control of any place of public performance" must notify theatergoers that cell phones are prohibited through a public announcement. Frequent theatergoers are familiar these pre-curtain addresses, but Reed says the responsibility is often shirked.

"Most of my experience is they don't make an announcement," he contended. "In terms of compliance, it's no more than 40 percent." Reed is also unhappy with the option in the law that allows producers who don't wish to make an announcement to notify the audience of the ban through posted signs or—as is more common—program inserts.
So what we really have is the actor's union checking out on audience-behavior issues because it lacks the heft and might of law enforcement to back it. Is this a labor issue or an aesthetic issue, a moral issue or a sociological issue? Truly there is far more at stake here than commerce: I can't imagine any sane individual condoning an audience member selling illegally taken images, audio recordings or bootleg videos. Moreover, Daisey is asking us to ask ourselves: Why does LuPone have to play the role of police officer? What other recourse could she have considered? And how do we address, as Daisey puts it, "the scarcity of the theatrical experience" to keep it "valuable over time"?

Here, by the way, is the LuPone video. You have to turn the volume way up to hear it properly. You might also take note of what Daisey writes regarding the number of people who have heard this audio as opposed to the seating capacity of the St. James.

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Anonymous said...

I'm with Patti ! From now on she should stuff her pockets with raw eggs. If a cell phone or camera goes off - egg the perpetrator from the stage !

I bet LuPone's got one helluva an arm !

LaurenYarger said...

I may be different than other performers, but I have no issues with people recording my shows, both audio, still image, and video, so long as that recording in no way affects the experience of the room for me or for my audiences.

That's nice, but unless you own the copyright to the piece, you don't have the right to give permission for its recording.

The biggest problem with the whole Patti Lupone thing is, where the heck was the front of house staff, especially since reports have this person taking more than one photo? With or without a flash, it's not permitted and the person knew that. There even was an announcement before the start of the show.....

A sharp FOH staff can spot cameras quickly and get them put away, many times before the photo is snapped. Most certainly, you're on it after the first flash. Sounds like they need some brush up training.

Anonymous said...

Having performed in smaller, intimate performance spaces, I'm a bit more annoyed by someone flashing a camera or texting during a performance.

And I'm with Lauren, having ushered at performances at performances spaces a bit more like the St. James (not Broadway, but rather large). If someone's using a digital camera, you can see that they have the camera on thanks to the preview screen. And most shows I've attended have the usherers almost jumping on the audience members after the first flash.

Audio and video recordings of a show with a cellphone, although it's illegal, is less distracting than a camera flashing.

Ben Turk said...

Theatre's strength as a medium, and best hope for the future is in it's connection and interaction with the audience. Sraightjacketing the audience in this way dashes those hopes.

We can either get used to performing for audiences who do something other than sit silently and motionlessly, or we can say goodbye to most audiences (especially the young audiences that big theatre's are begging for) and let theatre shrivel up and die.

I recently performed in a crowded bar. We were doing a full length play that Jonathan West called "too wordy and boring" when we performed it in a theatre. There's no amplification, no music, no big visual spectacle. At first, we competed with people talking on cell phones, ordering drinks and chatting. After five minutes everyone in the place realized what we were doing, and that they'd have to shut up if everyone was going to enjoy themselves. They did. For the rest of the hour and a half long performance, there were surely people texting in the back, or quietly ordering drinks, but most of the place was rapt, and more engaged than most normal theatre audiences i've been in.