Vent-Fest ’99

To the theater-goers who talk during the shows: Can you do me a favor? Can you shut up? I do not advocate violence of any kind, but if these people were to be hit in the head with bricks, I would not be bothered by it. Also, I would pay for the bricks.

I partake of live theater on a regular basis, and I am increasingly amazed at the inconsiderate behavior of people who, to look at them, you would not assume to have been raised by hyenas, although this is apparently the case.

I’m not talking about people having long, drawn-out conversations during a show. This doesn’t happen very often, and when it does, I have enough faith in the justice and karma of the universe to assume that the guilty parties are by some means struck dead as soon as they get to the parking lot afterward.

No, I’m talking about little statements here and there — things you utter to the person next to you in what you think is a whisper but which can actually be heard by those around you. Things that are not only distracting to other audience members, but that are also usually quite stupid to begin with.

For example, if you do not understand why a character in the play has done something, I’m afraid that’s just too bad. You are not allowed to “whisper” to your companion, “Why did she do that?” Because then your buddy is going to have to explain it to you, requiring more talking — and that’s if he or she even knows. There’s a good chance you’re not supposed to know why she did it, and that the whole purpose of the play is to FIND OUT why she did it, thus making your initial question all the stupider.

Also, statements on the order of “He’s a good actor” or “That’s a pretty dress she’s wearing” can easily wait until intermission. Believe it or not, it is actually possible to think something without also saying it. Many people are even somewhat selective in what they choose to vocalize and what they choose to keep to themselves. Try this; it can be a rewarding experience.

And if you just don’t hear very well — Hale Center Theater audience members, whose average age is 112, I’m talking to you here — then perhaps an activity that requires you to do a lot of hearing is not the thing for you. Having your seatmate repeat every other line of dialogue is annoying to those around you. It’s even worse when 80 percent of the audience is doing this, and those with average hearing (I know this doesn’t include you, but try to imagine it) have to hear every punch line being repeated all around the theater. Until theaters begin doing their plays with subtitles, or until actors start using megaphones to scream their dialogue directly into your gnarled, useless ears, maybe an evening at home with a large-print book is more the thing for you.

Still, when I hear someone talking during a show, I doubt I’ll ever do what I’d like to do, which is to look at them sternly and say, “Hey! Shut it!” I guess I’m just too nice.

But really. Shut up, all right?

Technically, this was not a "Snide Remarks" column. I had stopped writing "SR" for The Daily Universe two months earlier, and it would be another four months before I started doing it for the Daily Herald.

I was, however, writing a column each Friday for the Herald called "Steppin' Out." Its purpose was to make recommendations on what people should do over the weekend, and I hated writing it, because I couldn't put much of my own personality into it. (And also because "Steppin' Out" was a terrible name.)

Anyway, this particular week, in honor of April 15 Tax Day, the managing editor wanted all the columnists (there was a different one each day on page A-2; I was Friday) to use their columns as a way of complaining. He called it "Vent-Fest '99," and it was a chance for all the writers to let off some steam about whatever was bugging them. Since entertainment is what my "Steppin' Out" column was usually about, I decided to keep my complaints focused on that area, and this column was the result. It's not the funniest thing I've ever written, and I had addressed this subject before, but I think it's worth reading just for the sheer meanness of it -- especially near the end. I consider "gnarled, useless ears" to be one of my most enjoyable additions to the lexicon.

Please realize that I would NEVER have been as blunt and cruel as I am in this column had I not been instructed to do so by my editor. In fact, all the columnists that week were pretty bitter, some even more than me.

I'm including it as a "Snide Remarks" column because it was definitely a precursor to my doing "SR" for the Herald. This column reminded everyone that my columns are supposed to be funny. I shouldn't be making lame recommendations about where to take your kids this Saturday; I should be writing satire. That idea, I'm sure, stuck in a few people's minds and made them more receptive to the idea of a Herald "Snide Remarks" column later on.

We knew we would get letters; in fact, some of us looked forward to them. Here's the first, addressed to Managing Editor Mike Patrick, reprinted here exactly as we received it:

I am one of the owners of the Hale Center Theater Orem. I wanted to publicly let our patrons know that while we agree with the need for quiet during our productions, we strongly disapprove of the manner in which Eric Snider's "SHUT UP" article addressed it. Our patron's ages span the whole spectrum. The only age we don't allow is under 4 years. I applaud the senior population who are busy and active and I don't feel that it is appropriate for Eric Snider to ridicule them and their disabilities in such a demeaning manner.

Many people who are hearing impaired have difficulty judging the level of their own speech. They're not aware that their whispers may be too loud. If any patron young or old, is disrupting the audience and making it difficult for the rest to enjoy the production, we would ask that an usher be told at intermission, so it can be taken care of quickly and politely.

I think that Eric was addressing a real concern in his article using an "in your face, sarcastic" attitude. Unfortunately it came across as just plain mean. There is no excuse for referring to an elderly person's ears as "gnarled and useless." That kind of criticism and sarcasm, may be humorous to the hardened cynic, but it can be very hurtful to the elderly theater goer.

She's right that the column was mean, of course. Ordinarily, I never would have been so cruel and vindictive, even in a humor column. But with the whole "Vent-Fest" thing, and having seen what some of the other writers were doing, I felt OK in just getting it all off my chest in a manner that normally would have been too much, even for me.

This column came around the same time as my review of the Hale Center Theater's "The King and I," which also sparked some angry letters. Between that and this Vent-Fest column, I was not exactly the Hale Center's favorite person that month.

I did hear it on good authority later on, though, that while this letter was the Hale Center's "official" reaction, the reaction among the cast members and other employees was one of agreement.

At any rate, I sent a letter to the Hale Center Theater, apologizing for singling them out when the same could have been said of any number of theaters, and not just theirs.

I received this e-mail a few days after the column was published:
I agree that members of the theater audience should be considerate and quiet and sometimes they are not. However, you went a bit overboard for my taste and I found your comments offensive. You sounded too much like belittling of people who are old or hearing impaired. I hope you are always so socially perfect. I think we can make some allowances for people who are not.

Her comments are not without warrant, and she spelled them correctly, so I won't mock her.

I make no such promises, however, about the man who sent me this e-mail:
I was disgusted by your article about theater patrons that talk during performances (Friday, April 16). I don't disagree there are sometimes a few patrons that talk too loudly. However, your article came across as grossly insensitive and poorly written. Your unfortunate allusion to the enjoyment you would feel by hitting people in the head with bricks was a quick indicator that you didn't have the maturity to know what you were even writing about. (You are probably too young to remember the man that was caught in the L.A. riots during the Rodney King affair who's head was crushed by a brick as America watched on live TV). [Right, because that happened eight years ago, and I'm only 9.]

If you get offended by a simple short whisper, such as "He's a good actor" or "The set is gorgeous", you're probably missing most of the show. I really enjoy theater and I focus on the manner in which the director set certain scenes, the skill in timing of lines and the use of props and blocking. I got the impression that you walk into the theater anticipating the worst and then triumphantly gloat over the discovery of some untimely comments missing most of the nuances of the show as you hunt for, and deride, more offenders.

However, your worst offense was the demeaning way you characterized elderly patrons. I have seen hundreds of shows at the Hale Theater and there are some patrons (often teenagers) that occasionally do talk too loudly. But to suggest that the elderly not attend the plays so that your rapture will be uninterrupted, unveils an arrogance and self-centeredness that is characteristic of small-minded people. I love the fact that the Hales provide a venue where elderly folks can come and be welcome. I enjoy seeing their smiles and excitement after the show. If I happen to be in the cast, it makes me happy to be a part of that excitement. I applaud them for making the effort to come. (The audience would be pretty boring if it were all Eric Sniders)! [Yeah, you'd hate to have a crowd full of people who love theater, know theater, applaud fine performances, laugh at funny lines, cry at emotional moments, and who don't talk during the show. That would be a terrible audience to have.]

The final straw, and the part that actually provoked me to write this letter, was your unbelievably crude reference to the "gnarled, useless ears" and suggesting that the elderly be banished to their homes to read "large print books". Even a novice writer would have more sense than to use such insensitive language. You would be well advised to remember one of Lloyd Shearer's resolutions: "Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and wrong. Sometime in life you will have been all of these." [I've been all of them at once, actually.]

So my goal is to be patient with spoiled people and be hopeful you will eventually gain the maturity to invoke your opinion without demeaning those that aren't just like you.

P.S. I can't believe the Daily Herald actually let you use the word "stupider". [I was even more surprised they let me use the words "gnarled, useless ears."]

I think I'll take a nap.