WHILE some countries make military service mandatory, it seems to me that Canada should consider forcibly enrolling its citizens in charm school.
Once upon a time, fancy-pants would send their children to “charm” or “finishing” schools to learn proper etiquette. I can’t say I’ve ever met anybody who admitted to being a graduate; nor am I suspected of being one.
Still, even now, there are a few finishing schools scattered around the globe. There’s one in Switzerland that I wouldn’t mind popping into myself, if only to learn the etiquette for inoffensive yodeling.
I’m sure most adults could use a politeness brush-up. As North Americans, we live in a self-centred culture. We saw the effects of that in the people who misbehaved during the Vancouver riot, fuelled by alcohol, a sense of entitlement and mob stupidity. Those of us who were at last Sunday’s Steve Earle concert also got a personal reminder.
Stanley and I had bought great tickets in row D of the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts. Earle is a smart, sensitive alternative country genius, and he had brought five gifted musicians along with him to perform on numerous acoustic and electric instruments.
This was not a stadium concert – it was a relatively intimate event. But nobody had spelled that out for the giant galoot in the centre seat of Row A, who leapt up as the show began, started pumping his fist in the air like he wanted to lasso Earle and ride him home, then whooped loudly and randomly through every song.
As the musicians avoided eye contact with our hero, he did his best impersonation of the world’s most self-involved man. The hundreds of people he was disturbing, blocking their view and interrupting one of their favourite artists, were inconsequential to him. Members of the crowd started off with exasperated shouts of “Please sit down” that soon progressed to “Sit down, you piece of s---!” as Earle and co. stolidly ignored the fracas.
After about four songs, a security guy approached the goofball and asked him to remain seated. Soon after, he jumped up again and re-commenced his wind-milling arm and ecstatic shouts, the only audience member on his feet -- no fault of the extraordinary band. It was impossible to focus on the musicians with this rube literally front and centre. When my husband Stanley went to the lobby to ask the ushers, and then the manager, to intervene, they said there was nothing they could do. He then went directly to the security guard, who responded to Stanley’s plea by warning the lout that if he rose during the songs again, he would have to leave. Nevertheless, Goofy resumed his shenanigans, and at intermission he was finally kicked out.
Stanley’s pretty sure this is the same fellow who interrupted one concert by Lucinda Williams at the Vogue a few years ago, screaming and carrying on while the gritty, poetic Texan tried to tell laconic stories and sing emotional ballads. Whether the guy actually has a screw loose or simply likes to get loaded before he goes to any concert is unclear.
Personally, though, I’d like to see the Canadian government sentence him to several weeks of charm school, where he’d be forced to do the right arm windmill non-stop while watching Parliament Live TV.
This kind of public display of idiocy is all too common. Though great live performances are really about the connection forged between artists and their audience, obviously, not everybody buys in. In this wired world, we see that whenever cell-phones peal their owners are often compelled to take the call, whether they’re in a packed theatre or in a restaurant whose patrons pay for a relaxing ambience.
In 2010, I attended a show by an outstanding drumming-movement troupe from Taipei called U-Theatre, which was making its Canadian debut as part of the Cultural Olympiad. U-Theatre has a Zen sensibility; achieving a meditative mood is part of the spectator’s experience. This particular show, called Sound of the Ocean, was intended to be visceral. Through U-Theatre’s gongs and drums, we were supposed to feel the journey of water from solitary drop to oceanic mass, and also the ocean’s silence.
Hey, don’t ask me about the deep meaning of this. I’m no Buddhist -- I was just trying to go with the flow. That was impossible, though, because a couple of seats down from me sat a woman gazing, rapt, at her cell phone. As she played computer games, the noisy bleeps and blips could be heard above the drummers and the blue glow of her device was visible to everybody nearby. I gave her the standard theatrical glare, but she was so distracted by her game that an embarrassing verbal reprimand was required.
That’s why I say the tradition of charm school ought to be revived, and every Canadian forced to do a stint. Manners aren’t petty affectations, no matter what the world’s slobs contend. Politeness is the crucial ingredient that allows great performances to be enjoyed by everyone who attends them.