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LJ Idol IX - 28. The Copernican Principle (~950 words)

I was five years old when my uncle started teaching my brother and I to play preference, a card game similar to bridge. For many years afterward, I thought nothing of the game because our parents, grandparents, most of friends and many fellow college students all played it and casually used its slang in real life. Knowing how to play preference is a rite of passage of sorts for those of us who study maths and physics.

I was twenty five years old, and I was speaking with a new friend trained in linguistics when I started casually using the same slang, only to screech to an abrupt stop when her blank expression told me she knew nothing of the game but its name.

It is dangerous to assume that other people are on the same wavelength as you, or that they use the same set of coordinates. And nothing drives this point home better than travelling to other countries, where sometimes you have to adjust your perceptions to the opposite of what they are back home.

Theatre being the driving force behind my recent trips, let me share some of those experiences.

We say, "Theatre starts with the coat hanger." And indeed even though you are no longer expected to wear an evening dress or a tuxedo except to premiers and other special events, it is still considered proper to replace your everyday clothes with something smarter. People do wear jeans and T-shirts sometimes, but it is not a done thing. Dressing up helps create a special atmosphere even before the guests enter the theatre building and hang their coats.

In America though, there are no cloak rooms in the smaller Broadway theatres, and in those of them that do have one, you need to pay a dollar "tip". There is no such strong expectation of dressing up, either, and they certainly won't give you a rug to shine your shoes from winter sleet like it was sometimes done in Moscow when my mother was young.

This difference is slightly disconcerting but easy to adjust to, which is not the case with a more important aspect of the experience: stage doors and flowers gifted during the bows.

The usual practice in Russia is for members of the audience to bring bouquets of flowers and gift them to the cast during the final bows. Some also use this opportunity to pass notes together with the bouquets. This sometimes leads to ridiculous scenes when a well-known actor in a small role receives a dozen bouquets, and the lead actors, none at all, but this is also a legitimate way to say "thank you" to you favourites. It also is part of the reason why waiting at stage doors for some "extra" time is looked (down) upon as a very "fan" thing to do.

Imagine my surprise then during my first ever visit to Broadway. I was set to see the same play four times and wanted to bring flowers and say "thank you" at least once, as per custom and tradition. Only, nobody came forward with a single flower during the bows after the first show, and neither did anyone after the second performance. Nonplussed, I started asking my fellow audience members about the flowers during the interval in the third performance. "No," was my answer, "nobody ever brings any. What a good idea though, why did it never occur to us?"

Feeling stranger by the minute, I decided to approach the ushers after the show. "It is a wonderful idea," they agreed, "but let us check with the manager first, just in case," and called her on a walkie-talkie. The newly arrived manager said the same, but she was equally uncertain about my brave idea, and promised to give me a call in the evening after hashing the matter out with an even higher boss.

Foreboding in my gut, I escaped the rabbit hole scarcely able to believe the amount off fuss such a simple question had generated. They called me back that night, and said, "We are sorry, but the company do not accept flowers. Thank you for not just walking down the isle though."

Fellow theatre lovers have since told me that both on Broadway and in West End, the audience members also used to bring flowers, years and years ago, but the practice was discontinued because of perceived security risks as well as possible allergic reactions to exotic scents.

Flowers are still given at premiers and closing nights, but it is a staged affair everyone knows about beforehand.

Flowers are also still given by my brash compatriots who have been known for "just walking down the isle" or concealing small bouquets under the lapels of the coats they were allowed to keep on while sitting in first rows.

I envy my friends with the courage to do it, yet I do not regret my own choice to fall in with the crowd, for even such a supposedly nice gesture can be uncomfortable and unwelcome because of being unexpected.

Indeed, last month Shakespeare's Globe brought Midsummer Night's Dream to Moscow as part of their Asian tour. Not many flowers were brought to the stage during the bows, but even that generated a little bit of chaos, and made the actors look slightly uncertain. In a nice turnabout, the male leads promptly gave their flowers to some girls seated in front row, making jaws drop and silence rain for a few seconds.

Acknowledging points of view not your own can be mortifying, uncomfortable, funny, exciting and everything in between, but it is never boring.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 18th, 2014 09:39 pm (UTC)
ConCrit is welcome.

Some of this was probably mentioned in a previous season somewhere, but the flower failure is too juicy not to bring up again.

When direct speech is interrupted with author's words, you are NOT supposed to start the second part of it with a capital letter, right? Because it's the same phrase.
Ex: "No," she said, "it's not all right."

Edited at 2014-11-18 09:40 pm (UTC)
Nov. 19th, 2014 10:41 pm (UTC)
Yes, you're correct about the speech phrase. :)
Nov. 19th, 2014 02:36 pm (UTC)
We here in India have a felicitation program mostly to celebrate silver or golden jubilee of a play ..and of course the actors/directors know about it before hand..though this was nice to know about and made me smile how customs different from place to place.
My favorite line was.."It is dangerous to assume that other people are on the same wavelength as you, or that they use the same set of coordinates."
A nice read over all.
Nov. 19th, 2014 10:45 pm (UTC)
I think it's sad that people treat going to the theatre much like going to the movies.

Many decades ago, folks used to dress up, but somewhere around the 80's I think that started falling by the wayside. I can understand an afternoon matinee performance being more casual, but I think it's sad that we've brought standards down a notch from what it used to be.
Nov. 20th, 2014 11:27 am (UTC)
And nothing drives this point home better than travelling to other countries, where sometimes you have to adjust your perceptions to the opposite of what they are back home.

Having moved to another country, I know this too well. What's even weirder is returning home after having been gone for a long time. Everything becomes foreign.
Nov. 20th, 2014 09:19 pm (UTC)
...i may or may not have worn jeans the last time i went to a play. >.< but i wore nice shoes (not sneakers!) and a nice shirt.... i do think people should dress up, tho. if i was an opera-goer i'd want to see men and women in evening clothes.

anyway. super interesting, the differences in (for example) arts culture from one place to the next. and i think it's very sweet that the shakespeare actors gave their flowers to girls in the front rows.
Nov. 21st, 2014 12:25 am (UTC)
Oh, this is lovely. I used to go to the theatre quite often, and you're making me miss it.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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