Behaving Badly in Church

I want to tell you a story about my experience watching the estimable production of Young Jean Lee’s CHURCH at Forum Theater a few Sundays ago.

My wife and I happened to sit behind a family (we think) of four: a man, two women, and a young boy who honestly couldn’t have been much older than two. Yes, you read that correctly: a two year-old came to see CHURCH. We glanced at each other as the lights went down, my wife and I, and I knew we were both thinking the same thing: kids never behave at church; this is not going to go well.

And, in fact, it didn’t. As the first few haunting lines of the play rang out into the darkness, the little boy (who was sitting in the man’s lap) started to talk: not loudly enough that I could hear what he was saying, but quite audibly. My heart sank.

And then, suddenly, he got quiet. I didn’t know how, but his father — it had to be his father — got him to sit silently. In a few beats, I started to sink into the experience of watching the show.

Until the lights came up, that is, and I immediately saw what had silenced the poor little boy: the threat of corporal punishment from his father, whose hand was poised to strike his son the entire time. I almost made a disturbance myself, but I decided to just fantastize about kicking the man out of the theater instead.

And then it got worse. (Or at least just additionally bad in some new ways.)

Before I explain how, however, I need to do a little bit of work to describe CHURCH: a literary, heavily intellectualized rendering of a church-going experience built upon some serious dream-logic. While the play starts out resembling a somewhat ordinary, somewhat liberal non-denominational church service, it quickly begins to transform into something that makes much less sense. There’s talk of mummies and child molesters and chicken blood; there are parables about birds and fish that just don’t make sense; there’s spontaneous dancing; and there’s semi-realistic direct address that involves in-depth audience participation along the way.

So… while the first, more accessible movements of the play were unfolding, the family of four sitting in front of us were quiet, respectful theatergoers. They sat still, to be clear, and they paid close attention. A few short minutes after the play started to turn in a less familiar direction, however, their civility began to erode.

First, the father took out his cell phone to check sports scores of some kind. Then one of the women followed suit, slipping quickly into a text message exchange. The third woman, not to be outdone, started surfing the web on her smartphone. All three of them kept slipping their phones in and out of their pockets at first, till they all just gave up and left them out. It was a symphony of lights.

The boy, I should note, just kept sitting still.

In time, though, as the experience grew genuinely stranger and stranger, they did finally tuck their phones away… so they could all fall asleep. (Yes, even the boy.) This wasn’t just your typical head-nodding-forward-quietly, somewhat embarrassed sleep, mind you: this was four people slumping demonstratively all over one another, resting heads on laps and shoulders in a vain attempt to try to get comfortable in a seat without ANY back support. (The only consistently challenging thing about seeing shows at Forum: the abysmal chairs.) These people weren’t just tired; they were expressing immense boredom and disdain, and they were doing so in a rather distracting manner.

They were, needless to say, difficult to sit behind.

But honestly: as annoyed as I was, I hesitated to judge them. I first started telling myself: we’re sort of in church, and the members of different religious groups have different standards of behavior and senses of decorum. Who was I to judge?

Then I considered the fact that they might actually be offended by the play, which (to my mind) isn’t exactly kind to the experience of organized religious worship; the story might have been difficult to sit through patiently.

And of course, then I remembered how strongly I’ve advocated for experimentation with in-show tweeting, and I thought: don’t be a hypocrite on that front at the very least. (And I wasn’t; if all they’d done was send discreet texts, I’d have been fine.)

In the end, I let go of everything (save for the man’s egregious and irresponsible behavior toward a toddler who shouldn’t have been asked to sit quietly for that long in the first place). What I did, I think, was (on the fly) change my expectations about my environment. I abandoned the notion that people aren’t supposed to be whispering and leaning on top of each other in the theater. I accepted that there would be movement all around me. And the more I stopped inwardly trying to control everything, the more it all faded into the background, leaving me simply with Young Jean Lee’s fascinating exercise.

I’m really not sure that I’d be able to do it again. (And it may have been easy because, for a few long stretches, all they did was sleep.) But I’d like to think I would, and I suspect that if I had to practice that sort of “letting go” more often, I’d get better at it. Who knows?

Perhaps it would at least leave me a bit more tolerant and forgiving: and that can only be a good thing.

How do you deal with difficult audience members sitting near you?

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