Sometimes this is a crazy, crazy world, and social media only amplifies the crazy. Stories fly around the planet at light speed, reaching more people than we can ever imagine. And the consequences can last forever. One errant tweet in bad taste on your way to South Africa and 13 hours later, you’re out of a job. One picture of a dress goes up, and all conversation stops. You never know what’s going to get the internet a-burning.
This week, the Intertubes burned about theatre. Not about a great production or some change in leadership at a revered regional theatre. No, the Internet blew up over a plug. Or, more precisely, over an audience member at the Broadway production of Hand to God clambering up on the stage and trying to plug his iPhone into a non-working socket on the set. When I first starting seeing the story pop up in my news feed, it sounded like an urban legend. A trickle of incredulous “Can you believe this?!?” posts turned into a flood turned into a Vanity Fair profile of set designer Beowulf Boritt turned into a YouTube video with more than 500,000 hits.
All of my Facebook feed was abuzz. Half of the folks posting were shocked, shocked, shocked that an audience member would behave in such a horrid manner. The other half tsk-tsked at the first half for being too hard on newcomers to the theatre. Personally, I fall right in the middle. If one guy doing a dumb thing is the ultimate sign of a society falling apart, we’re all in a lot of trouble. On the other hand, I don’t think the expectation of a little decorum is really the thing keeping people out of American theatres. It all seemed a bit much. All for one idiot on the pitch, as they say in sports.
Then Playbill cracked the story wide open. They tracked the guy down and got him on the record. He’s Nick Silvestri, a 19-year-old lacrosse-playing college student from Long Island. And he is kind of amazing. Take it right from the man himself:
Why did he do it? What was the emergency? “Girls were calling all day. What would you do?…I saw the outlet and ran for it,” he said. “That was the only outlet I saw, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ I was thinking that they were probably going to plug something in there on the set, and I figured it wouldn’t be a big deal if my phone was up there too.”
You’d think that he was somehow shamed from the experience. You’d think that suddenly being the poster boy for the uncouth would have sparked some kind of introspection, some question in him. You’d even think he’d have something good to say about the show. You would be wrong.
In retrospect, what would he say to the cast? “Hey, I’m sorry if I delayed your show five minutes. But you got a lot of attention from this, so maybe I made your show a little better [better known].”
And there you have it. It would be easy to take this kid to the woodshed, to decry the crumbling of social norms, to call for better theatre education. That would be the obvious way to approach it. But maybe there’s another way.
Look at this kid: He knew that he wasn’t supposed to charge his phone on the stage. He knew where he was, what was expected. While he says he’s “not much of a play guy,” he adds that he attends a play about once a year. This is not about a lack of education. It’s about a lack of giving a crap. And honestly, is that so bad? Not giving a crap about the way things are supposed to be done?
And look at the play in question: Rob Askins‘s Hand to God is a thunderbolt of a play, opening with profanity, blasphemy, and cynicism, and ending with blood and sorrow, squeezing every possible laugh in between. At least one critic decried its iconoclastic attitude and the way it brought the wrong kind of people into the theatre. People like one Mr. Nick Silvestri of Seaford, Long Island. People who see the world as it is and say, “Why not?” Why not plug your phone in on the set? Or in any random outlet you come across? You’ve been running around the city all day, you’ve had some drinks and are pretty banged up and girls are calling. What are you going to do?
Don’t we need a little of that in the theatre? In our audience? Don’t we need a little bit of “Why not?” The first play I saw of Rob’s was Princes of Waco, in a workshop production on Ensemble Studio Theatre’s tiny stage. It’s a dark, twisted little play about a love triangle involving a couple of kids who flee the church—and run right into the arms of a grizzled, whiskey-soaked criminal. It’s all blood and booze soaking into the barroom floor. Like Hand to God, it’s a play bristling with the impulse of “Why not,” with a decided lack of crap-giving about the chorus of voices who would say, “Don’t do that! That’s not how we act here!” That’s one of things we should want in our theatres (not the only thing, mind you).
So I say: Welcome to the theatre, Mr. Silvestri. And buckle up—it’s a contact sport.
J. Holtham writes things in Los Angeles these days. You can find him on Twitter (@jholtham) or Tumblr (jholtham).