Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Quiet On The Set

You're either an actor, or a clapper

By Walter Jowers

MAY 17, 1999:  A few weeks ago, I went to a play at daughter Jess' school. The play featured the acting, singing, and dancing of about 80 fourth-graders. It was delightful. Everything about it was fine and good. Except for the audience.

There are a few obvious things that have seriously degraded American society. One is fixing the lawn mowers so that people don't have to think about running over their own feet. Another is including a plastic potato with Mr. Potato Head. America was a better place when you had to come up with your own real potato, and you had to be careful not to get puncture wounds from Mr. Potato Head's pointy little face parts and hats.

Time was, we Americans knew the difference between the performers and the audience. The performers were in the front of the room. They did all the talking and showing off. The audience sat quietly, and applauded on cue. These days--infected by Monty Hall's costumed studio crowds, Morgana the Kissing Bandit, and those two dumbasses who ran the bases with Hank Aaron after his 715th home run--American audiences now think they're part of the show.

A while back, I went to a performance of Stomp. Right behind me (which is designated a "pain-in-the-ass seat" in every theater), a woman sat hillbilly-clapping. No matter how funky the Stompers' rhythms, no matter how syncopated and unpredictable the beat of the brooms and buckets, this woman whacked her giant cow tit-squeezing hands together on what she thought were the one and three beats. About every 30 seconds, she'd give a big "woo-hoo." Finally, I turned around and said, "Ma'am, please. There's a performance going on, up there on the stage." She looked at me and said these very words: "You think they're so good, we should just sit here and watch them?"

Yes. That's exactly what audience members do. Just sit and watch. Face front, feet on the floor, hands in your lap. You want to be in Stomp, get your ass on a bus to New York and audition.

The audience at our school play wasn't particularly bad. In fact, I'd say they were about average these days. Behind me to my right, there was a mom holding a squirmy little boy. "Sissy's about to come on. Watch for Sissy. This is Sissy's part. Don't miss it." This went on through the whole play. Directly to my right, there was a woman providing running commentary to a child. She repeated the dialogue, expounded on the plot, and explained all the props. Behind me to my left, there was a man with a nuclear-powered camera. It couldn't have run on regular batteries, because it had more motors and gears than both wings of a 747. Every few seconds, the little motors would whine as he panned and zoomed and focused. Then, POW, the blinding flash, as if it had any chance of illuminating his child some 60 feet away.

Of course, just about everybody came packing a video camera. Each parent was determined to have an isolated-camera reel of his child's performance. I admit, I've been guilty of this kind of thing myself. Somewhere in the Jowers video archives are the tapes from my first day as a videocam owner. I set the camera up on a tripod, and taped 30 minutes of Jess asleep in a swing. Back and forth she went, eyes closed, chin down, over and over. It's like Andy Kaufman singing 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall all the way through--it's only point is the unspeakable vanity of thinking anybody would actually want to see the whole thing.

All during the performance at Jess' school, there were cell phone ringers and pager pages. Worst of all, there were the watches that beep on the hour. You watch-beeping people, listen to me: Shut the beeper off. If you want to know when the hour strikes, just look down at your watch now and then. You cell phone and pager people: If your job's so important that you must remain in touch even during your child's play, please set your phone and beeper to vibrate, and stuff 'em in your underwear. Everybody's happier that way.

We audience folk ought to be quiet until it's time to clap. A play, or a concert, or any performance worth witnessing tells its own story, in its own time. Besides the fact that chatty folk ruin the show for their neighbors, there's the obvious fact that talking about what just happened means you're going to miss what's happening now. You'll never get caught up. At the end of the show, you'll know what you need to know. So hush. Drink it in.

And lose the videocams. They're distracting for you, your child, and everybody else. When your child looks out at you, she ought to see your smiling face, not your half-human, half-electronic Borg head. Just take some nice close-up snapshots at the end of the show. That'll leave you some room to add to the memories, embellish them as time goes on, see all those good times through a little gauze. It's a better way to hold onto your memories, I promise.

Visit Walter's Web site or e-mail him at walter.jowers@nashville.com.

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