Monday, September 28, 2009

“Well, I guess that’s it”

So this past Saturday night was almost indescribable in its cumulative weirdness. But try to describe it I will. I apologize if I impugn any individuals I don’t mean to impugn in the course of relating this story; I really will try to describe only what transpired. But I’m sure some editorial commentary will slip in reflecting my bewilderment about certain specific circumstances. Restraint may end up being a vain hope before I am done.

I had made reservations for 6:30pm at the Hanover Tavern and Pub. My wife and I had promised to take my mom out to a show for nearly 9 months running and finally the stars aligned to make it happen. But when those stars align, sometimes it can be dangerous.

If you remember, it was kind of a sloppy, rainy night Saturday. We live south of the river, my mom lives in the west end and the Tavern is up near Ashland. As so often happens in Richmond, the weather intimidated some drivers so completely that they insisted on driving 10 miles per hour below the speed limit along lengthy two-lane rural roads. The cumulative effect of this over the course of our travels resulted in us arriving 10 minutes late for our reservation.

When we informed the maitre’d, she exclaimed, “Wow, you all are pushin’ it!” She handed us off to a hostess who in turn exclaimed incredulously, “You all are here for theater?!?!” She took us up to our table and instructed us, “Be SURE and tell your server you are here for theater.” Apparently, arriving only 80 minutes before the show was the cause for considerable distress among the waitstaff. I should say that I know that their intentions were good and their concern was in a way admirable. But the effect of their alarm was to make us feel in a way chastised and a bit defensive.

The very nice waitress took our drink order and then disappeared for 10 minutes. When she came back, she looked at the menus we had been dutifully studying and told us they were the wrong ones. She gave us the “theater” menus and then disappeared for another 10 minutes. When we finally ordered, taking note of the rampant anxiety about the time, we said that we are happy to take our dessert during intermission. I should note that, at this time, still being only barely past 7pm, we aren’t really worried. But still, better safe than sorry, right?

Repeatedly during the ensuing 30 minutes, we catch snippets of the waitstaff at the wait-station immediately behind us in conversation, saying “I don’t think they are going to make it.” “It’s going to be really close with them.” Etc. Etc. We are served our salads around 7:10 and our entrees by 7:20ish (“we don’t mean to rush you”) and the food is fantastic. We have a second glass of wine. All seems to be going well until we see our waitress suddenly rushing past us and then down the stairs in a near-panic. We look back at the wait-station and our hostess is coughing and gagging and generally in a bad way. We ask “are you OK?” She shakes her head “No.” We are confused and consider whether we should call 911. The waitress returns saying, “She’s gone.” The hostess is having an asthma attack and the waitress was trying to find the maitre-d to borrow an inhaler from her. The maitre-d has left for the night. The hostess puts her head in a freezer for several minutes. We hold tight, cell phones at the ready as she slowly recovers, which she does. Whew!

We finish our entrees and have coffee and it’s 7:45pm. The waitress is delightful. We’ve shared this tense situation and I think we all feel closer. The waitress says, “we could bring you your dessert now if you want.” No, we’ll stick with the original plan.

We settle up and head down to the theater. We’re in the center of the house, about 4 rows up, nice seats. After a few minutes, the lights start to go down. The recorded curtain speech. The buzz of conversation starts to fade. Except right over my right shoulder, one couple continues to talk…and loudly. “WELL, I DON’T KNOW. IT SOUNDS LIKE IT COULD BE FUNNY.” “I GUESS WE’LL SEE.” “WE CAN ALWAYS LEAVE IF WE DON’T LIKE IT.”

The play starts. Jonathan Spivey plays and sings with cheerful confidence. He starts his narration. The couple behind us has been quiet for maybe 5 minutes before they begin to comment. “HER NAME IS FLORENCE. I THINK THIS IS AFTER SHE’S DIED.” My wife and I both turn and give the couple “the look.” They are quiet for another stretch. We meet Florence / Debra. Eventually, she sings. “OH, THAT’S BAD. THAT’S REALLY BAD.” “HOW CAN SHE NOT KNOW SHE’S SO BAD?” Again, the look. The crowd is looser now because of the laughter, and it apparently doesn’t register. “SHE WOULD HAVE TO RENT A HALL FOR PEOPLE TO COME HEAR THAT.” “DO YOU THINK SHE’S GOING TO GET BETTER?” Finally, my wife leans back and assertively Shushes them.

We then get a nice little chunk of commentary-free action before, about 30 minutes into the show, a door at the very front of the house-right section – that is, in view of everybody else in the audience – opens and three people in wheelchairs slowly roll into the house. They creep forward slowly and I – and I expect a few dozen other people in the house – try mightily to maintain our focus on the action on the stage. There doesn’t seem to be anyone attending them. Then, the woman in the first wheelchair rolls that one inch too many and – as we all look on in horror – the front wheels of her chair slip over a small step and she is thrown forward out of the chair with the chair toppling over on top of her.

A gasp goes through the crowd. No one in the house-right section seems to know what’s going on. Finally, a man in the front of the center section walks across the stage to get to the woman. At this point, Debra – the unbelievably composed and consummate professional that she is – says, “I think we need to hold.” Chase comes out from backstage. No one seems to be attending these people. Chase and the center section guy are able to get the woman back in her chair. It’s still not clear if anyone came with the people in the wheelchairs to assist them. After a couple of minutes – that must have seemed like an eternity to Jonathan and Debra – the people in wheelchairs seem to be situated. Debra asks whether everyone is ok. There is no answer. Debra asks whether it is ok for the show to continue. There is no answer. Finally, my wife – and perhaps some others from the audience – yell out to Debra that everything seems to be OK. Demonstrating her skill and composure again, Debra says to Jonathan something to the effect of “let’s take it from bar 22 then shall we?” and they bravely and flawlessly pick back up again.

Well, as if this was not interesting enough already, in addition to the three people in wheelchairs, there is another man with the crowd of latecomers who seems to have some neurological disorder. A few minutes after the action starts up again, he starts making small noises and little gestures. He appears to be cold and at one point puts a shirt or jacket over his head. Later, he’ll get up from his seat and move to another empty seat at the end of his row. I’m aware of this because his actions are accompanied by noises and, with each one, I watch the heads of the people in the four rows in front of me all turn toward the house-right section.

Let me interject that there have been shows at the Empire I have gone to where differently-abled patrons and antsy children have been in attendance. In a big theater and amidst the sounds of a big musical, small distractions can be tuned out. In the intimacy of the Tavern’s theater, they are unavoidable.

The lights come up for the end of Act I and the woman sitting next to Holly says cheerfully, “Well, I guess that’s it!”

At intermission, we retire to the Pub for our desserts (incidentally – and this kind of feels like piling on but, in the interest of completeness, my mom’s dessert ends up not being what she ordered). Crème brule and Pecan Pie -- truly delicious and I would highly recommend them. A woman that is sitting two rows behind us thanks my wife for “shushing” the loud-talkers in the row between us. We see Joe Pabst and express our support and admiration for Debra. We hear later that, at some point during intermission, Chase falls down a flight of stairs, which is why he is limping when we see him at the end of the show.

We return to our seats for the second act and the loud talkers are at it. “WELL, I JUST DON’T SEE WHAT THEY ARE GOING TO DO WITH IT NOW.” “IT SEEMS LIKE SHE’S GOING TO KEEP SINGING THAT WAY; I THINK THAT’S GOING TO BE THE WHOLE JOKE.” We give them “the look” as the lights go down and that seems to settle them down.

The second act proceeds without significant incident except for the repeated grunts, peeps, and exclamations from house-right. There is a woman not in a wheelchair with them. The noise-maker moves next to her and starts poking her. Quiet moments on stage are interrupted by high-pitched “woo”s from house right. I focus as intently as I can on Debra and Jonathan.

The show progresses with much hilarity and appreciation from the audience. The concert at Carnegie Hall wows the crowd. Things move deliberately toward the moving, magnificent final scene. Debra comes out and begins to sing. Only about 3 bars into the song and already a tear is flowing down my wife’s cheek. The crowd is rapt – even our friends in house-right. And at about this point, the sound of about 10 hard candy wrappers all being removed at once starts to rise from the woman sitting next to my wife. She has a Styrofoam container in a plastic bag with (apparently) her leftovers from dinner. At this point – at the epic pinnacle of the entire show – she decides to check to make sure her food has not somehow escaped the container. She shuffles it back and forth in her lap, loudly and persistently. My blood pressure begins to rise to dangerous levels. After about a solid minute of this wretched, interminable noise, my wife grabs the woman’s arm, prepared to chastise her. The woman is apparently shocked by this sudden contact and freezes. Debra finishes her song. It is a beautiful moment – a transcendent moment – and all I am hearing is a horrid echo of a squeaky Styrofoam container.

Our standing ovation is immediate and fervent, if for no other reason to dispel some of the built up frustration of the entire night. We leave the theater and we walk off into the dreary night, with curses on our lips for the ungracious, the inept, the ignorant and the inconsiderate. I think many thoughts that I will be ashamed of later.


Sue said...

Oh David,
We must have been sitting right next to you during the in-house debacle you have just described. I am over-awed by the grace and aplomb with which Deborah handled the situation.
As for the talkers - I wanted to accost them at intermission and say that just because there is no talking on stage - it doesn't give you the right to talk during the silences. But, of course, it's "not done".
And bless your wife's heart for silencing the squeaky styrofoam.
What should have been a tearfilled finale was royally spoiled. And you know they had to have heard it on stage.
(And I'm sorry Chase got hurt - I hope he's all right!)
Despite all that - it was a wonderful show, I may have to go back and see it under quieter circumstances....
Thank you for describing it so well!

Frank Creasy said...


Well, I wasn't there, and I know the restaurant staff's unprofessionalism is not in Barksdale's control (though as someone who's spent years doing customer service training, I'd be glad to offer my services to the owners of Michele's at a reasonable contract price!)

But as for the audience situation, well, it sounds as if it was a perfect storm of all the bad behavior Richmond artists have experienced for a long time. While the majority of folks know how to conduct themselves, there are those who are either highly inconsiderate or unable to discern how their behavior impacts those around them. Either way, it's a huge disservice to the folks who paid the same price to enjoy an evening of theatre.

I'm pretty certain any actor who has performed on a Richmond stage has a litany of horror stories, so I won't recount mine herein (besides, it would take hours!) I guess I'll just say that I'm sorry your experience that night Dave, along with your family and all the others in the audience, were ruined. We all want as many folks as possible to patronize local theatre (God knows we NEED that); we just want folks to be considerate of the atmosphere required to present a compelling professional theatre production.

And kudos to Debra and Jonathan. The silver lining behind all this is that we have incredible professionals like them who can roll with such unexpected disturbances and still make us glad we came.

Angela said...

Possibly I'm being unbearably positive here, but maybe this was the first live theater the TALKERS had attended. In which case--congratulations to Barksdale for growing new audiences! Hopefully they and the Styrofoam Lady will (a) have picked up on some etiquette and (b) return for more.

(I think I'm in a good mood today, because ordinarily I would also be seething at such insensitivity.)

As for the wheelchair mishap, this should be a strong signal to Hanover Tavern to eliminate such hazards. Easier said than done, I know, but just because a person is in a wheelchair doesn't mean he or she is dependent on a "helper." Live theater should be accessible to all!

Chris Hester said...


I am so sorry to hear about all of this. We all do have some nightmare stories of our own. Though, this one ranks up there.

I do remember one night a doctor of mine was attending a show I was doing. During the final scene he begins to TALK on his mobile phone in the front row – loudly – while someone is dying onstage.

Yet, what you have written is perhaps the funniest thing I have read in weeks.

I have actually acted it out in my head and am still laughing an hour later. It sounds like an SNL skit.

Maybe I am just relating, but thanks for taking such a night in stride and for capturing the horror and humor at the same time.

This is a good reminder that theater goers come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of decorum.

Still chuckling (not at anyone, but at the situation),

Chris Hester

Jeffrey Cole said...

This really made my day.

This should tell you what kind of day I've had.

Andrew Hamm said...

I'm with Chris. Large chunks of your tale of woe had me in stitches.

debra said...

Um, I just want to say, as someone who was there for a specific part of the evening, that the woman falling out of the wheelchair was NOT funny. Period.
And, to clarify, she was indeed, like most members of her party, in need of a helper. And the helper at that moment seemed to be nowhere in sight. There is a handicapped/and/or/special needs section of the theatre and she WAS there, but in the aisle, which is why her chair was inched over the step, and fell, to the HORROR of everyone. Even the talkers, I'm sure. She fell onto concrete and was lucky not to have been seriously injured.
It was a really awkward, sad, unfortunate moment.

elise said...

Fantastic story! I'm sorry it was such a wretched experience, but it made for great evening blog reading.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to read that a handicapped woman, and others you deem unworthy to attend theater, were made fodder for your blog. Your writing makes light of an extremely uncomfortable situation, on all parts--- not just yours. I am not sorry that your dining and theater experiences were disturbed; perhaps the universe was presenting an opportunity for you to practice patience. I'm guessing that the handicapped woman's ticket was paid for, and that she was looking forward to an evening out, just like every other theater patron.

Andrew Hamm said...

Debra: Fair enough. I think I can pretty confidently say that no one here is laughing at a disabled person falling out of her wheelchair. But that was a pretty small part of a narrative that reads like a "Bad Theatre Experiences' Greatest Hits," the rest of which is darkly hilarious.

debra said...

I hear you Andrew...just too soon, I guess. Was feeling hyper-sensitive last night. It's a new day...

Sue said...

No one means to laugh at or disparage the handicapped folk who came to the show Saturday night. No one has said they do not have the right to attend theatre. But, like any other theatre-goer, they do not have the right to disrupt a performance in progress. Whoever was in charge of that group should have made sure they were there on time. By my watch it was 8:30 when the incident happened. It is not the issue of abled or disabled. They should have been there on time as the rest of us were. Arriving in full house lights might have prevented the fall.

Dave's post does not single them out, just adds them as another element (along with the Talkers and the Styrofoam lady) in a peculiar evening.

derek phipps said...

I find it unfair to say David "made fodder" of the woman in the wheelchair. Nor do I believe that David was putting out a social commentary to let us know who he deemed to be adequate theatre patrons. There was not one part of the blog that made light of the woman falling out of her wheelchair. If you want to champion a cause and protect someone who might have been made fodder in the blog, choose loud-talker or styrofoam lady. But keep in mind those patrons made a choice to be noisy. Nobody is blaming the lady for falling out of her wheelchair.
Possibly David should be receiving kudos for bringing to light an issue the Tavern obviously needs to address (as Angela put so well).

I dunno, I just didn't read the blog as an attack on the handicapped. If anything, it praised the professional manner and grace of Debra and Jonathan.

Maybe the best thing to do is to sweep incidents such as this under the carpet and don't talk about them.


Andrew Hamm said...

"Fodder," anonymous? Should those events have been edited from the writer's account of the event because the person is handicapped? Which would that qualify as: censorship, or discrimination?

It's part of the story being told; it should be told.

Dave T said...

Thanks to everyone for your comments. Sue, I'm sorry you were at the same performance but it seems like you were as impressed by Debra's and Jonathan's professionalism as I was. I should add that someone from the Barksdale called me and offered an effusive apology regarding the experience. Which was unnecessary but was appreciated just the same.

Thanks also for your responses to Anonymous who seems to think that mentioning a mishap involving a handicapped person is the same as denigrating a handicapped person. If there is any doubt, I was horrified by the experience the wheelchair-bound woman went through and I'm just glad she apparently did not suffer serious injury.

Mostly, I was simply relating what happened during the evening. But if I were to editorialize, I'd say that it's my perspective that it honors the dignity of a handicapped person to expect from him or her the same courtesy that I would expect from a fully-abled person. All theatre patrons -- regardless of ability, social station, or profession -- should do everything in their power to be on time and, when or if they are admitted late, they should find their way to their seats without undue disturbance to others who paid for their tickets as well, arrived on time, and have the right to a pleasant experience. As Andrew so aptly summarized it, ignoring the situation just because it involved a handicapped person doesn't serve anyone, handicapped or not.

mmmhawke said...

This is very relevant to this dialogue:



Kimberly said...

I think Holly is my hero! ;-)