About half an hour into the play “Sorry” at the Public Theater yesterday afternoon, the actor Jay O. Sanders suddenly announced: “Somebody is ill. Is there a doctor in the house?”
A woman in the first row was having some kind of convulsion.
The house lights went on, a doctor in the audience went to the woman, who had by then become unconscious. He and members of the cast and theater staff brought her to the floor; felt her pulse; brought her water. She seemed to recover, and, from where I was sitting, looked as if she wanted to go back to her seat and continue watching the play. Eventually, she was persuaded to leave.
There was irony for me in what had happened. I had originally invited an old friend of mine to accompany me, but he decided not to go after calling the theater and asking two questions: How long is the show? What are the seats like?
He recently has developed a chronic condition called neuropathy, which makes it painful for him to sit for too long. The staff member who answered the telephone told him that the show ran two hours without intermission and that the seats were “standard.” Actually, the seats were atypically comfortable for a downtown theater, but I only found that out when I got there, accompanied by somebody I invited at the last minute to replace my friend.
I suddenly remembered that long ago, in a marathon production, a woman sitting behind me had the kind of chronic cough that sounded as if the monster from Alien was trying to emerge from her throat. Nine hours I listened to this wracking cough; other audience members apparently gave her looks, because in-between the coughs, she would say “I can’t help it.”
This issue has actually made the news recently – even the late-night talk shows.
Somebody in the balcony vomited on the orchestra patrons in “Grace,” prompting the star Paul Rudd to tell David Letterman his top ten thoughts: e.g. “not my worst review.” Most seem to have assumed the person in the balcony was drunk. Might they have been ill?
The question this prompts: Should people stay home if they’re sick? The answer seems obvious to many people:
Lisa B. Thompson: Yes!
Elizabeth Richards: if you can’t keep your fluids to yourself, yes, please stay home.
Andy Helms: Yes. Should people with a bad cough go to chamber recitals that will be recorded live? No. They shouldn’t. It’s rude.
But there are other ways to look at this – from the point of view of the ill theatergoer. As Eric Bohn points out, theatergoers don’t have understudies.
Jonathan Silverstein: “I’d love to hear how most box offices would deal with an “I’m sick” excuse to exchange tickets.”
Diane Wilshere:” From my experience if you are a subscriber they will exchange same day but expect a fee. Regular ticket-holders are usually out of luck.”
Howard Sherman remembers seeing both American Buffalo and Noises Off even though he was running a fever; he felt compelled to attend, since he had bought his tickets in advance, and couldn’t exchange them.
Haleh Roshan has similar experiences: “So many times I’ve either gone and fought sniffling/coughing (annoying everyone else),” she says, “or stayed home but felt guilt for the wasted $$$ (especially since it usually means i have to buy ANOTHER ticket for myself).”’
Jeremy Kareken offers a suggestion, surely tongue-in-cheek: “Do advance purchases cause viral infections? TKTS all the way.”
But this question is more complicated than it may seem, something of a confounding dilemma that the theater community has not been doing enough to resolve. Did the theatergoer at “Sorry” know she was going to be sick? What if she has a chronic condition and never knows if and when she’ll have an attack? Should they, like my friend, stay home on the chance that their condition will act up?
Legally, a person with a chronic condition, whether or not it is disruptive, is officially disabled, and is protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act. But this is not just a legal issue. It’s a moral quandary. Should somebody be denied the pleasure of theater who is arguably most in need of such a diversion?
Nigil Whyte offers a solution that is probably unworkable, but with reasoning that is impeccable: “I think there should be a seating location for them, near the exit. But no one should ever be deprived from seeing theater.”