Sunday column: Performers are people

June 8th, 2014

Today’s column is online here. This is the second question, and the beginning of my answer:

At a concert in a small venue, when the artist asks for requests, is it rude to request a well known cover by the artist as opposed to one of his original songs? Assuming the cover by the artist is relatively popular as a recording but is obviously not his own music.
R.J. Canton, OH

Miss Conduct wants to throw flowers and bravos at you, R.J. for your understanding that live performers are human beings, and not meat-based streaming platforms for music and spoken-word poetry. Live music, theater, or comedy should be seen as a social event, not as a consumer experience.

I wrote this column shortly after reading a piece by Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books in which the author gets himself trapped–temporarily, but for much longer than he, or you, or the Supreme Court’s legal fiction of the “reasonable person,” would ever desire–at a dreadful avant garde production of “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” I clicked on the article expecting a hurr durr, experimental theater is stoopid screed, but it was a good deal smarter than that.

The performing arts are inherently social in a way that, say, literature and painting aren’t, because the artists are right there in the room with you. They can see you. This creates a certain pressure to conform to social norms–having Capt’n Crunch staring at you can affect your behavior, never mind Blanche DuBois–including sticking around and acting like you’re paying attention at least until intermission. And this can open audiences up to artistic experiences they might not otherwise have.

Parks points out that not every work of art is instantly pleasing. Some take time to get into. In a museum or gallery, there is no social pressure to continue to gaze at a painting that doesn’t immediately thrill your eye. You glance and move on. Imagine if the artists were all standing next to their work, though! You’d feel bad to do that. So you’d look at everything longer, and maybe ask a few questions to be nice. (This is what the “poster sessions” of scientific conferences are like.) You might end up developing a great and genuine fondness for some paintings that didn’t grab you at all at first.

Theater does exert that social pressure:

In the theater on the other hand the flesh-and-blood presence of the actors, good or bad as they may be, creates a sense of reality and immediacy, a heightened state of attention. Having paid for your seat, having promised yourself a special evening, and finding yourself sitting in the middle of a long row beside others who have also paid and promised themselves a special evening, others whom you imagine have similar interests to your own, people willing to spend time and money supporting avant-garde culture, a community almost—in these circumstances you are probably always going to hang on at least thirty minutes, however bewildered and sceptical you may be. And thirty minutes should be enough for Beckett’s enchantments to begin to work. Simply the emotional experience of being in the theater, the sense of occasion, the positive atmosphere of people engaging in an intellectual pursuit together, provides the necessary momentum for tackling the great enigma of Beckett’s work.

Park’s column influenced my choice of and answer to that question, and then after I’d turned it in, this happened:

An actor in a Santa Clarita, Calif. production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was fired Saturday after physically removing a heckler in the audience who lobbed anti-gay slurs at the cast for nearly half of the show.

John Lacy, who played Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ classic play that tackles homophobia among other themes, was fired after jumping off stage and physically confronting an audience member who repeatedly made noise and yelled “fag” during emotionally tense scenes, according to audience members’ accounts of the incident on Facebook.

The show apparently continued following the confrontation and concluded to a standing ovation. Lacy was apparently not let go until after the performance.

OH HELL NO.

Where in the name of Joseph Papp was the producer? The front-of-house management? The stage manager? Mr. Lacy should not have escalated–responding to words with hands is never the right thing to do–but he was absolutely in the right to do something, and the fact that he chose an unwise something is not on him. A person who is disrupted in the middle of a task that requires 100% of their emotional, physical, and intellectual energy is not wholly responsible for how they respond to that disruption. Mr. Lacy should have been protected by management, and since he wasn’t, there is no way in hell that he should have been punished for protecting his fellow actor, the dignity of his craft, and the rest of the audience’s right to enjoy the play in peace. (There has been, if not a happy ending, at least a silver lining to the whole story reported here.)

This story enraged me, because it seems less about an isolated case of extremely bad theater etiquette than it does part of a whole complex of entitlement. Every student who has ever demanded a grade as though that is what tuition pays for. Every customer who thinks they’re always right. Every blog commenter who whines that the blogger isn’t writing about what they, the commenter, thinks is important.

The customer isn’t always right.
The customer isn’t always even a customer.
Sometimes the customer is a participant.

And that is a much bigger and better thing to be. Live up to it.

Blogging returns!

June 1st, 2014

I’m back!

And so is the blog. For a year. We’ll see after that.

The Boston Globe and the Boston.com website got divorced this spring, and the Globe got custody of me, which means that Miss Conduct doesn’t have a blog on Boston.com anymore. (My column still runs in the newspaper, both print and online.)

The thing about blogging is that it’s such an open-ended endeavor. Are you posting too much? Not enough? Being interestingly varied? Yet staying on topic? What’s the end goal of any blog, besides a large number of readers to be disappointed when the blogger quits? Which almost everyone who blogs does, sooner or later, unless they’re getting paid.

And when people quit blogging, they tend to abandon their blogs for long stretches of time first, or start re-running old material, or generally behaving not like people who are bringing it home to a triumphant conclusion, but people desperately trying to gun an engine intent on sputtering to its death. I’ve done it myself. I think if we’re ending our blogs like that, maybe we somehow didn’t start them right.

So here’s my new idea: I’m going to blog in this space until next June, when I’ll decide whether or not to keep going. I’d like to get picked up as a blogger by another publication by then, or find some other way of supporting the blog. If not, I’ll re-evaluate, but having an end date in mind will, I think, help keep me focused and energetic.

The blog’s new tagline will be, “The Art & Science of Social Behavior,” and that’s what it will be about: the intersection of the arts, the social sciences, and everyday life. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and read and comment often. Coming up this week:

- Do the right clothes and props make you better at your job?
- “Mad Men” explains everything about my other job
- Why your parents buy your kids too many presents

Also, today’s “Miss Conduct” column is online here—a threefer, this week—and you can catch up on past ones here, now without a paywall to worry about (here’s information on subscribing to the Globe). I hid a little Easter egg in the column for Monty Python fans.

Welcome back! We’re going to have fun.

Today’s column

July 24th, 2011

… is online here.

Today’s column

June 26th, 2011

… is online here. What a sad story that first one was. And I’m awfully proud of this line from my second answer: “If a witty riposte or soulful rebuke could shut down a drunken bully, history would have played out very differently, my dear.”

Column catch-up, plus an extra

June 12th, 2011

Last Sunday’s column is online here, and I apologize for not posting it earlier.

Here’s this week’s column, in which I’m nice to a smoker.

This week’s magazine is a special food issue, and in addition to the column, I also wrote a “Perspectives” piece on food guilt and policing in the office.

Today’s column

May 29th, 2011

… is online here.

Today’s column

May 22nd, 2011

… is online here.

Today’s column

May 15th, 2011

… is online here.

Today’s column

May 8th, 2011

… is online here.

Today’s column

May 1st, 2011

… is online here.

Today’s column

April 24th, 2011

… is online here.

Today’s column

April 17th, 2011

… is online here.

A reader writes (and reads, and writes again)

April 13th, 2011

To my surprise (this has happened perhaps two or three times since I’ve been writing the column) I got a letter from the first Letter Writer from this Sunday’s “Miss Conduct”! She wrote:

Hello again Miss Conduct, this is LV from Walpole (the hysterical woman married to the boor). Painful as it was to read your response this Sunday, my husband and I agreed that you are right. To our surprise, you helped us. You are good at what you do.

But we now have another question: what did you mean with the second sentence of the “looking a gift horse in the mouth” response? You wrote “I’m getting a sense of the kind of person you are.” I interpreted that to mean “I sense that you are a thoughtful person who is trying to make life easier for others.” My husband interpreted it as “I sense that you are a controlling, condescending person.” Just wondering.

I replied:

Dear LV–

How nice to hear from you! And I’m delighted to hear that you and your husband are working things out. I’m glad my words were helpful. I found the dynamic you described rather familiar, I have to admit.

The statement about the second letter writer was deliberately ambiguous, because I wanted her to reflect a bit. Have you noticed that sometimes people who start off like your interpretation (i.e., helpful, wanting to make things easy for others) often turn into the kind of person your husband was describing? I’d hoped to prompt a little self-examination with that comment.

I won’t know if it worked, because most people never write me back. I’m awfully glad you did, though! Best to you and husband–

That second dynamic, of helpfulness curdling, is one I am familiar with as well. I wrote about it here, in response to the Torah portion about Rebecca and Isaac.

Today’s column

April 10th, 2011

… is online here. I wonder what really happened between that couple that night, don’t you? Also, my editor really liked the line about the LW “preferr[ing] not to be left at the table drinking alone, because it made you feel like something out of a Patsy Cline song.”

Today’s column

April 3rd, 2011

… is online here.