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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

New theater etiquette poll questions our manners as Patti LuPone, more Broadway stars upset with cellphone users

Patti LuPone and Michael Urie in "Shows For

Patti LuPone and Michael Urie in "Shows For Days." Credit: Joan Marcus

The word "etiquette" has such a quaint sound to it. To complain about bad behavior, especially involving electronics, makes the complainer seem destined for little-old-ladyland, or an elitist, or someone who refuses to understand the importance of new audiences to the health of the arts.

But you know the next sentence. Really, everyone knows -- far too well. This was the month when a Long Island teen, Nick Silvestri, made an alarming breakthrough in oblivious behavior by walking onto the stage of "Hand to God" on Broadway and trying to plug his cellphone into a fake outlet on the set. Although he apologized at a hastily called news conference, I'm betting -- OK, maybe I'm just hoping -- this will be the bad-manners low point of the theater year.

And this was also the month when Patti LuPone, bless her guts, took theater's new-media helplessness into her own capable hands. The Northport-raised actress, revered by many of us for stopping a performance of "Gypsy" in 2009 to shout at people taking photos, grabbed a cellphone away from a texter during an exit line of a scene from "Shows for Days" at the Lincoln Center Theater. (Audiences at the Lincoln Center complex used to be spared the announcement warning them to avoid the ringing, the flashing, the blinking devices. Now LuPone's own voice comes over the loudspeaker.)

In the middle of all this, I was sent the results of a new theater etiquette survey.

It was conducted by Goldstar, an online national company that sells discounted and full-price tickets to many kinds of live performances. Jim McCarthy, co-founder and CEO, told me in a recent interview that they asked their 1,325 theater members (and some theater insiders) their opinions about theatergoing.

Some of the 12 questions are both amusing and oddly useful. When squeezing into a row of seats, is it better to face your fellow theatergoers "butt-side" or "crotch-side"? Sixty percent say butt-side, though I've noticed that Europeans prefer the face-to-face maneuver. Another timeless question involves the armrests. As you've probably noticed, there are an uneven number in each row. Everybody gets one, except for the single person who gets two. Who decides?

According to the survey, 45.3 percent think "the first to use it wins." But 24.4 percent let others take it, and a Darwinian 3.9 percent said "I take it." The rest believe that no one gets it, which strikes me as both unlikely and wasteful.

Not surprisingly, many of the questions involve phones. But McCarthy is surprised that the "overwhelming number of people are opposed to texting or tweeting . . . even if done discreetly." Cellphone usage is second only to talking as "most bothersome etiquette." "Singing along" rates just 1.4 percent. Sleeping in the theater, 0.8 percent.

Goldstar's questions are relatively mild-mannered -- that is, nothing about eating fast food or getting intimate in the theater. In 2007, David Hyde Pierce endured a family passing a bucket of chicken along the front row during his Tony-winning performance in "Curtains." According to a spokesman from O&M Co., the press representative for "Hand to God" and many other shows, the immersive show, "Sleep No More," which has audiences follow actors and the story through dozens of rooms, occasionally has hyper-immersed couples finding secluded locations to have sex.

About 20 minutes into a preview of the short-lived "Doctor Zhivago" on Broadway last spring, a woman bellowed "We should have gone to the movies!" About five minutes later, she blurted "Somebody change the channel!" If that theater nightmare sounds familiar, you must have heard it on Seth Meyers' show. As it turns out, his parents were at that performance and his father turned around and told her to be quiet. According to Meyers, the actors said, "Hey, we're gonna stop now," after which security came and escorted the woman out.

As the theater reaches out to new and younger audiences (and theaters started selling alcohol in sippy cups), habits formed watching TV and movies have collided with social-media obsessions to change theater manners -- obviously not for the better. As you probably have heard, even Madonna was shamed for texting during a recent pre-Broadway performance of "Hamilton" at the Public Theater. Creator-star Lin-Manuel Miranda famously did not invite her backstage after the performance.

I had my own new-etiquette question at a Metropolitan Opera gala opening. Sitting in front of me was Faye Dunaway, her enormous hair extensions draping over the back of her seat. Unfortunately, her hair was also, inevitably, hanging over the front of my seat where the Met has its computerized subtitles. Do I ask her, please, to move her hair? Or do I dare to pick it up and move it myself? I did neither and enjoyed the opera the old-fashioned way -- without translations.

McCarthy has a nice old-world way of putting the new problems in context. Instead of special etiquette rules, he said people should follow the "golden rule. Just don't spoil the experience for everybody else."

And if you do, watch out for Patti LuPone.

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