The Whistler

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I have walked out of plays, clapped when the curtain came down, jumped to my feet and clapped until my hands hurt. I have been in big Broadway venues, tiny hole-in-the-wall theatres, off-Broadway theatres, high school auditoriums and outdoor venues.

I have seen rock operas and serious drama, musicals and avant-garde what-is-going-on-here drama. Comedies, tragedies, one-woman and one-man shows, casts of a hundred, I’ve seen them all. I’ve watched stars of the theatre and television and recording stars trying and failing to be theatre stars. I’ve watched debuts and final performances and different Billy Elliot’s. I am a stranger neither to Greek theatre nor opera.

I have sat next to people, including my friends, whose phones have rung despite the manager’s request that all electronic devices be turned off. A man I took to the ballet whipped out a bottle of Poland Springs water during a quiet pas de deux, and sucked out the water until the bottle made cracking noises that could be heard 10 rows away.

I have sat next to or in front of Major League coughers, loud whisperers, non-stop talkers, people with post-nasal drips that led them to chhh, chchh, chhh throughout a performance. I have sat next to hecklers, arm-rest usurpers and wearers of heavy scents of the perfume or body-odor genre. Smokers and drinkers have shared their habits with me via their respective and distinctive smells.

My seat neighbors have been people from down the block, across the country or faraway continents. We have talked before curtain and during intermission and developed mini friendships of the moment that made the theatre-going experience more fun. But it wasn’t until last week at a performance of “Good People,” starring Frances McDormand and Estelle Parsons, that I sat next to a female shrill whistler who couldn’t control the urge, at curtain, to do one of those – no, many of those – two-finger-in-the-mouth whistles that the human ear cannot tolerate.

At first whistle, let loose facing not the stage, but my left ear, I felt deafened. At second whistle, I felt irked but thought, OK, how long can this applause go on? At third whistle, I wanted to punch her in the face but instead turned and very nicely said, “Could you please stop whistling because it is deafening?”

Before the question was out of my mouth, it was clear that I was not dealing with normal. Not even vaguely normal. This virago got into my face – close enough for me to bite off her lips if I wanted – and started screaming. At full volume. Loud enough to cut through the applause. “How dare you?….Don’t you tell me what to do . . . . She was scary. I shut up, and everyone around us was shaking their heads in disbelief. It was as if the Loch Ness Monster materialized in the blink of an eye and was, surely, going to eat me up.

Obviously, thankfully, this kind of encounter is the exception, not the rule, but here are a few rules that can make a big difference for those around you in the theatre – and for you as well. So simple, so seemingly obvious, so often forgotten:

  • Get there on time. If you are in an urban area, there will be traffic. There is always traffic. Count on it. If you are on time, an entire row of people will not have to stand and disrupt other people’s views while you climb over knees and purses and feet
  • Open any candy, gum, cookies in wrappers, anything that might crinkle during opening
  • Turn off your phone and check that it is off. Not on vibrate which is only one step better than full ring. Unless you are a physician responding to a hospital call, there is no excuse. Babysitters? What did they do before cell technology?
  • Keep your coat and bag and scarf in your territory
  • Leave the perfume in the bottle
  • If you are sick, surprise a good friend with a great gift – your ticket
  • If you are a woman on line for the restroom, where there are never enough stalls for the number of women who need them, don’t spend your stall time putting on lipstick
  • No matter how much you’ve enjoyed the play, stifle the kind of whistle that a dog owner may use to call a dog back in a big open field
  • Go buy more tickets. With arts funding taking such a big hit, we all need to support the arts

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