Talking in an indoor theater is a no-no, as are smoking, snoring and reading the subtitles aloud. Anyone breaking those rules is subject to a stare-down, told to be quiet or reported to the usher.
But go to an outdoor arena like the Hollywood Bowl, the Greek Theatre or the John Anson Ford Theater, and suddenly the same rules don’t apply. It’s as if the absence of walls and a ceiling gives some people a license to sing, fiddle with cellophane-wrapped food or chat on a portable telephone.
Should you “Shhhh” someone who’s accidentally smashed his wine glass on the ground? Or do you grit your teeth and put up with it, realizing that at outdoor arenas, some noises just go with the territory?
Some do and some don’t, says etiquette expert and author Elizabeth L. Post.
“Outdoors there is a certain laxity about the rules--it certainly isn’t as strict as indoors,” she says, “but people should use some consideration and thoughtfulness about the people around them.
“At a concert,” she says, “you should not tolerate people talking. You can say, ‘Please, I’m trying to listen to the music,’ and call the usher as a last resort if people are being totally objectionable. Of course, you wouldn’t do that at a sporting event, but you would at an outdoor ballet performance. And people do behave pretty much as they would at an indoor concert, with a little more moving around.”
The good news is that patrons and theater administrators believe most people who attend outdoor concerts and plays are considerate. But there is the occasional rude boor who treats live performances like a monster truck show.
Technology brings us one of the newest ways to irritate people around you: the cellular phone.
“That’s one of the biggest annoyances,” says Susan Rosenbluth, general manager for L.A.'s Greek Theatre and the Pacific Amphitheater in Costa Mesa. Some people cannot bear to be separated from their cellular lifeline, she says. “They became a problem about four years ago, and after vehement complaints we decided to check them. Some people grumble a little bit, but they can give their baby sitters or whoever our number, and we can find them in the audience. And they’re welcome to come and use their phones during intermission.”
Cowboy hats pose another problem. It seems that country-Western performers bring out country-Western wardrobes. Sit behind a large hat and you could miss most of what’s on stage.
“It depends on how many gallons the hat will hold,” says Rosenbluth. “But I think people at these kinds of concerts tend to be pretty friendly and not shy about saying, ‘I can’t see behind your hat.’ If there’s still a problem after that, then the ushers tend to get involved, and they may ask them to take them off.”
Talking, however, hasn’t posed that big a problem. “But occasionally you get someone who stands up when no one else in the section is, and in that case we ask the loner to sit down. When you go to a pop concert, some people will be singing the lyrics, and you have to expect that to happen. Or somebody yells, ‘We love you, Ray Charles!’ It’s part of the ambience.”
Things have been fairly calm this summer at the John Anson Ford Theater, where house manager Mark Blackham has observed a “fairly behaved audience.” He credits the walls that enclose the seats with making this “an intimate theater where people are much more likely to be quiet and not talk. Those who come here know what to expect in terms of how to behave, so at a chamber music concert they’re not going to run around and talk. We did have a Latin American group, and at the end of their show people formed a conga line and ended up dancing on stage with the group. But I think that was very appropriate for that kind of show.”
What Blackham does cite as problems are the occasional wine bottle that escapes from someone’s picnic, patrons who “get up and go out and come back in” and the rare talker, who can usually be tamed with “the glance from hell.”
At the Hollywood Bowl, however, no high walls enclose the bench seats or the coveted boxes. Instead, the 18,000-seat theater is bordered by trees in front and the sky above.
But for the most part, the audiences here are well-behaved and polite, says Keith Gurian, the Bowl’s house manager. He and the ushers have to occasionally settle complaints about disruptive people, sometimes relocating the offending patrons elsewhere.
Gurian also notes that the higher tiers tend to foster more noise.
“I think it’s like any other event,” he says. “The further away you are from the action, the more distracted you are. You’re not as focused on the show.”
And some patrons start their picnics at 5:30 or 6 p.m., “So by the time the show starts (at about 8), that’s when they’re ready to go walking. But for the most part, when you consider the size of the theater and the fact that it’s outdoors, our problems are minimal.”
Gurian gets complaints about cellular phone users, but rarely--few Bowl-goers have interrupted their penne pasta with pesto for an important call.
And what are the audience’s pet peeves?
“It bothers me during a classical concert when people talk,” says Judy Lender, a seven-year Bowl veteran. “If I really wanted to hear the music perfectly I would go to a concert hall. I come here to eat, drink and hear the music. And at a jazz concert everybody talks and nobody cares.”
Vera Panosian and her husband, Howard, have been Bowl-goers since 1963, and have sat everywhere, from benches near the top to their current spot, a box near the stage.
“It’s a different venue for music, and we don’t go there quite to hear music the same way as the Pavilion,” she says. “So if you’re really a purist, I’m not sure the Bowl is the right place. What makes up for it is the sociability of the place.”
Panosian notes that with the upper-tier seats comes a little more noise.
“There’s more a feeling of relaxation, and I find that it can be a little noisier--people are just having fun in this big, open environment. And I think on Fridays and Saturdays you have a different group of people than on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when you have your longtime box-goers. On the weekends it’s a whole different group of people, there tend to be more pops concerts, and there’s a little more activity. The bottles still roll down at the quietest times, and the airplanes still go over, but it’s part of the whole atmosphere.”