About 15 minutes into Ballet Tucson's lovely Nutcracker at Centennial Hall, the portly woman with a ticket for the seat behind me made a grand entrance.
"Hello ladies!" she bellowed to her seated buddies, as she struggled to squeeze past their bended knees. "How's everyone tonight?" She landed with a thud in her seat, banging the back of my chair on her way down, laughing merrily as she tumbled.
Her noisy arrival was just the opening salvo of her evening-long battle to overshadow the kids on stage, and to drown out Tchaikovsky's music. While the young dancers were prancing around receiving their gifts from Drosselmeier, the woman loudly caught up with what her pals had been doing lately. Around the time the dancing grandparents did their comically arthritic spin across the stage, Ms. Big Voice decided to go to the bathroom. It was déjà vu all over again: She crashed into all her neighbors on her way back out, squealing as she went.
Tucson's performing arts are growing up, but the city's audiences are mysteriously growing more immature. There's a disconnect between audience bad behavior and the town's high-quality arts, in the realms of dance, classical music, opera and theater. Local dance troupes are proliferating, and Ken Foster at UApresents has been indefatigable in bringing high-level ballet, modern and ethnic to town. In 2002 alone he's lassoed most of the big-name modern troupes, from Mark Morris to Alvin Ailey to Bill T. Jones to Ron K. Brown. These star attractions in turn draw ever-bigger crowds. But the trouble with this kind of blockbuster success--and the growing popularity of the arts--is that people like Noisy Woman flock to events they apparently care little about. And they haven't a clue how to behave.
Noisy Woman is hardly alone. One of my all-time best bad-behavior stories dates from the Yo Yo Ma concert of several years ago. I had seats just feet away from the great cellist, who sat alone on the Centennial Hall stage playing Bach's cello suites. The music was incomparable, but my bored neighbor (whose ticket, like mine, had cost $60) spent the concert poring through her program, crackling each page as she went. More recently, at the Bill T. Jones solo show, the young teen in front of me repeatedly twirled a long lock of her hair in my face, obscuring my view of one of the leading lights of modern dance.
The stories go on and on. A pair of drunken teen-agers stinking of whiskey lurched into the row behind me at the Yin Mei Dance show at Pima West Center for the Arts. They spent the whole of this austere, quiet show laughing raucously and kicking the backs of the chairs in front of them. A duo of moms at the Tucson Regional Ballet's charming Southwest Nutcracker kept up a running commentary on each and every young dancer in the show. An elderly lady at a Tucson Symphony Orchestra concert absent-mindedly crinkled the pink paper bag that contained a CD she'd bought at intermission.
And at Arizona Theatre Company's production of The Fantasticks, the couple next to me talked animatedly long after the orchestra launched into the first tune. Before too long, the woman fell asleep, her slumbers punctuated only by her loud snoring. (Admittedly, the show was a little dull, but still.) She woke up near the end of Act One and, rejuvenated by her nap, started rubbing her date's foot provocatively in her lap. Mercifully, her ministrations seemed to work. Eager to finish the erotic labors they had begun in the theater, the couple did not return after intermission.
What to do? What to do? I can't begin to understand why people spend big bucks on shows they have no interest in watching or hearing. It's not much fun to act the cranky arts cop, but more often than not I end up delivering a sharp "shhh" to these ninnies, holding a finger to my mouth. Most offenders quiet down in embarrassment, but some get indignant. When I asked the Bill T. Jones hair-twirler to stop, her outraged mother turned and gave me a glacial glare, which she repeated at regular intervals for the rest of the concert. Noisy Woman was a tough case. I turned to shush her, but she was so involved in an animated conversation with her friend she didn't even notice my angry gestures. I had to tap her knee, and spell it out for her.
"Will you please be quiet?" I hissed. She was astounded at my effrontery. "Excuse me?" she demanded incredulously.
Concert halls could help. They shouldn't seat late-comers. Let them alight in a rear row until an appropriate interval in the action. TSO should lose the noisy trinket bags. And when presenters make announcements before the show, cautioning people to turn their cell phones off, they should ask them to shut their mouths as well.
At a recent holiday concert at University/Rincon High School, the estimable bandleader Lewis Dexter took a moment to scold the parents preemptively before the music even began. (Teachers can do this.) This is not television, he said sternly, this is live music. These kids have been working hard. So be quiet and pay attention.
I thought I'd died and gone to arts heaven. Finally! Reinforcements! But did it work? No, indeedy. The dad in front of me decided to catch up on his paperwork during the concert, paying his bills while the kids played music. Then right at the finale of a selection from The Nutcracker (what is it about Nutcrackers?), this dad decided to tear his discarded papers in half. One by one by one. Rip by rip by rip. Noisy Woman would have felt right at home.