On a recent night at the ballet, I was distracted from the ethereal beauty on stage by a decidedly nonethereal clanking. A woman in my row was holding a wineglass filled with ice and repeatedly reaching inside of it, maybe to extract a specific, special cube. Or maybe she was panning for gold in there, I don’t know. Regardless, the music was quiet and the constant clankety-clank of the ice against glass was a weirdly discordant note. I wish I hadn’t noticed it, but I did. And I wished, later, that I’d said something, but I didn’t.
Other People. They’re always out there, whenever we leave the house, with their cellphones and their noises and their weird ice-related habits. And they’re the reason why I’m constantly hearing from readers that you don’t go out for entertainment anymore — that you stopped going to the ballet or the theater, that you watch movies exclusively at home now. It’s the behavior of others, you say, that just makes going out unbearable. So you don’t go.
And that, my friends, is unbearable.
Because nothing is as magical as seeing a movie larger than life, being dwarfed by dazzling images that seem to wrap around us. (I’m sure your at-home screen is big and very nice. So is mine. But it isn’t Cinerama.) Nothing compares to watching two dancers, breathing the same air as you are, doing something airily impossible, finding beauty in the lines of two bodies. Or to listening, in a silence so rich you can feel it like velvet, as an actor conjures up a heartbreaking emotion, or a musician pulls lyrical silk from an instrument, or a singer takes us somewhere we’ve never been.
So … this is me with a call to action. Let’s not just stay home with our individual screens, grumbling about how Other People are the problem. Let’s go out and experience art and entertainment together, whenever and wherever we can. And let’s just, when we do that, think about the person next to us; not the friend we brought along but that stranger one seat over, whose story we don’t know. That person might have saved up for months to attend this event. They might be deeply troubled or grieving, and came for some beauty or distraction. Or they might just want to get lost in the movie or the performance, just like you do.
I’m not talking about following a bunch of finger-wagging etiquette rules. Because every arts experience is different; the crowd noise at a raucous horror movie, for example, won’t be the same as what’s heard — or not heard — in the final act of “Romeo & Juliet.” (It is, in my book, totally OK to tell big-screen horror-movie heroines aloud to not go down to the goddamn basement, as long as you do it with wit and brevity. Somebody has to tell them.)
Really, behavior at an arts event is the same as behavior anywhere: Just be nice. Be considerate. Be aware of how your actions affect others. Tell people — nicely! very nicely! — if their actions are affecting you; maybe they didn’t realize. Yes, your cellphone can be seen in a dark theater, despite your halfhearted efforts to hold your hand over the screen. Give yourself a present and put it away. Those tickets were expensive, right? Recently I saw a man one row away from me at the ballet texting throughout the performance. The seat he was sitting in wasn’t cheap; unless that was George Balanchine texting from the beyond (in which case, please give him my number and tell him I have just a few questions), it’s incomprehensible to me why the man didn’t put the phone in his pocket, lift his head, and remember why he left the house that evening.
The ready availability of movies at home may have caused theatergoers to forget that, when you go out, you’re not at home. Again, just basic consideration: Don’t put your feet on the chair in front of you (you wouldn’t do this in church, would you?); minimize the number of times you have to sidle past neighbors to come and go (or sit on the aisle); keep your phone in your pocket. For those who can’t imagine getting through a movie without texting, two thoughts: 1) try it, it’s fun; 2) wild idea: how about if movie theaters designated the last row in each cinema as a texting zone? Think about that person next to you: maybe they’re a new parent who hasn’t gotten out to the movies in forever; maybe they’ve been waiting for this particular movie for ages. Don’t mess it up for them.
Am I an idealist? Am I unrealistic? Hey, I’m a critic; I’ve been called worse. But this I know for sure: Something’s lost when we don’t gather together to be dazzled and entertained; when we don’t, at least sometimes, get that thrill that comes from being in an enormous room where everyone’s sharing quiet rapture or delicious laughter. Let’s just be nice to each other — that’s all! — and get lost in art together. Remember: if everyone is being considerate, there are no Other People. There’s just us.