This sure isn’t Boston

by Gautam Raja

The theatre I work at requires audience punctuality. Once the third bell rings and the doors close, people are not allowed inside. I’ve stood outside many times enforcing this rule, and the range of reactions we face on the front steps are interesting.

But first of all, the reasons for the rule. If latecomers are let in, there will be a stream of people stumbling in for up to the first hour of performance or later (yes, people do come to 8pm shows at 9pm and expect to be let in). Ours is a cosy 200-seat auditorium with the seating wrapped around the stage, so any entrances are noticeable right through the space and very disruptive to both audience and performers.

And quite simply, if someone else has taken the trouble to be on time for a show, why should they be subject to latecomers tripping over their feet and whispering hushed apologies, completely breaking the magic of the play?

About that magic—writers, directors, actors, designers and tech people all work hard to create a world that sucks the audience in. The immersiveness of theatre is powerful, but fragile. Talking, cell phone lights and rings, and yes, latecomers, can burst this bubble and ruin months of hard work. To want to blunder in at those fragile first moments of a play is incredibly selfish.

And yet, so often at the gates, we’re met with anger and upset, and huge entitlement. I always wonder at the latter—how can you slip up and yet expect people around you to make amends? The answer is in the person’s arguments—they blame traffic, us, the theatre management, the very concept of punctuality… anything but themselves. Life in a world where you’re never wrong must be pretty cushy, I’m sometimes tempted to try it.

The usual pattern is that people try cajoling or pleading, and when that doesn’t work, they either give up, or get belligerent. As more latecomers gather, they form a mob of sorts and it can get pretty unpleasant out there. We all hate “latecomer duty”. Some people have tried to barge in anyway. Many shout and scream. Others accuse us of running a scam. The bad behaviour that’s piled on top of bad behaviour is shocking.

Of all the reactions, the one that annoys me the most comes from Indians who have lived abroad. “Oh come on, this isn’t Broadway”, said one. “I’ve been to the Boston Theater,” said another, “and they let me in. This isn’t Boston, it’s India.”

The idea that one comes back to India and expects—nay demands—moral slackness really gets my goat. “It’s only India,” they are actually saying. “Nothing here matters… why do you care about being on time?”

My answer would be, “Yes exactly, this isn’t Broadway. This isn’t a multi-million dollar play with hundreds of lights, and flying sets, and professional actors. This is a tiny space run with passion and not much more, and everyone on stage gives up regular jobs and a lot of comforts to be here. Plays here don’t run for months… sometimes we have just one or two shows to get it right. This isn’t Broadway and that’s why it matters even more that I don’t let you in.”

The policy has worked though. The number of latecomers has plummeted over the months (though the traffic, if anything, is worse), and the belligerent ones are far fewer. Yes this isn’t Boston, but that’s why we need to stick to our policy, because if we all say, “This is India, let it slide”, it will slide, taking all of us with it.

First published in Gulf News, August 6, 2013