The recent news about Patti LuPone confiscating a mobile phone from a text-happy audience member at a performance of Douglas Carter Beane’s Shows for Days at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts has me sputtering with frustration about audience members who use their smart phones (or forget to turn off the ringer) during performances. Ms. LuPone says the situation may drive her from the stage completely. It may drive me right off my rocker.
Full disclosure: About twelve years ago I was sitting in a West End theatre watching a play when I shifted in my seat in such a way that I accidentally pushed a button that turned on the phone in my pocket (this was before the current era of glass-screened smart phones). The phone activated with a pleasant, jaunty and seemingly endless little tune which caused some of those around me to shift in their seats, but not to actually assail me. As I sought to extricate it from my pocket, I suppose to put it in silent mode, I apparently leaned on the power button again, causing another unwanted musical interlude. This caused the poor woman directly in front of me to turn all the way around and give me a withering scowl which I could only answer with a helpless, apologetic wince. Note to self: middle-aged men should take care about what they can reasonably carry in the pockets of tight blue jeans. At least I recognized the second ditty as the one the phone played when powering down, and I was able to prevent additional humiliation by holding myself uncomfortably motionless until the interval. I think that’s the only time I myself have disturbed a performance with a device, except that I now keep my iPhone on vibrate mode at all times, and it has been known to buzz softly but audibly in my breast pocket when I’ve forgotten to power it all the way down.
Ms. LuPone asks, quite reasonably I think, why people would take the time and go to the considerable expense of attending a star-studded professional theatre production if they are going to allow themselves to be distracted just as they would while sitting in their own homes with re-runs on television. I now work almost entirely in university theatre, where (at my school at least) we tend to assume that most of the culprits are students that have been assigned to go to the production and, to one extent or another, don’t care about it and/or don’t want to be there. This does not mitigate the unmitigated gall it takes, it seems to me, to blithely distract hard-working performers and potentially hundreds of fellow audience members, but apparently I am more self-conscious (and maybe even more other-conscious) than some people.
I’ve had the same question as Ms. LuPone in some of the worst phone experiences I have witnessed and endured as an audience member at professional productions. I frankly feel that I wasted a Benjamin on a ticket to see Brian Dennehy and Robert Sean Leonard in Long Day’s Journey into Night twelve years ago; sure, I have fond memories of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as Jamie, but just as Vanessa Redgrave’s Mary Tyrone reached the bottom of the stairs for her climactic speech a device somewhere in the orchestra seats began calmly repeating, “*Ping!* You have a call. *Ping!* You have a call.” I wish she had stopped the show, demanded the removal of the phone’s owner, gone back upstairs and started the speech over, but would that really have mended the experience for anyone? I know that I dropped something north of $250 for a pair of nosebleed tickets to the 2012 Broadway revival of Evita, so I’m guessing the rather elderly woman a few rows in front of me must also have paid something substantial; that didn’t stop her from checking her email right around the time that Argentina’s first lady (in the diminutive form of Elena Roger) began to succumb operatically to her terminal illness. That email addict was downright polite in comparison to the person directly behind me in my $140 seat at the recent revival of the revival of Cabaret; when her phone rang she actually took the call (“Hello, HOWARD?”), setting off a verbal set-to with an understandably enraged man a couple of seats down from her (“You don’t have to get NASTY,” she hissed at him). In that case I still wonder if I shouldn’t have asked house management to call the police in order to prosecute her under New York’s no-cell-phones-in-theatres law, but ushers already sometimes seem to assess me as a possible nut case and I don’t really need fellow theatre professionals laughing in my face.
So, the question remains: what is to be done?
You may ask if this issue is even related to directing, but if you do I just may back you up against a wall with my index finger in your face, asserting in no uncertain terms that this is indeed a problem for directors (and actors and playwrights and designers and everyone else that gives a hoot about dramatic storytelling). If our answer is just to carp about the inadequacy of house managers in the hope that they’ll make more trips down more aisles, further disrupting more performances with more whispered disputations with more selfish blockheads, we deserve what we’re gonna get, which is an endlessly repeating cycle of metaphorical graffiti defacing our art work. We’re going to have to get involved in finding solutions.
We had pretty good results, I think, from a very explicit recorded pre-show announcement at the play I directed most recently here at Stephen F. Austin State University. I saved the text:
And welcome to August: Osage County by Tracy Letts, sponsored in part by Tipton Ford-Lincoln.
This performance will have two ten-minute intermissions.
Please note that photography and recording devices are prohibited.
Please turn off your mobile phones and other devices completely, and please refrain from text messaging and similar activities during the performance. These are more distracting than you may realize, so please wait for intermission to turn on your device, even if it’s just for a moment.
Thank you, and enjoy this performance of August: Osage County.
Just in case, we played this at the end of the first intermission:
Welcome back. If you turned on your phone during intermission, please remember to turn it off again now. Thank you, and enjoy the second act of August: Osage County.
And this at the end of the second (yep, it’s an honest-to-goodness three act play):
Welcome back again. If you turned on your phone, please turn it off again now. Thank you, and enjoy the conclusion of August: Osage County.
Or perhaps I kid myself that we had good results, as one of the student ushers for the production told me that indeed he does recall mid-scene phone usage. (And there is always the problem that the same dolt who can’t make it to the theatre on time and thus misses the announcement is also a leading candidate to keep his device on and maybe even use it during the show.) Still, I like to think it was less than usual. So, maybe more and longer and more detailed pre-show announcements? Maybe.
But perhaps the best hope I’ve encountered is some form of the approach advocated in critic and playwright Terry Teachout’s aching and passionate blog post of a year ago. In it he recalls one of the all-time great pre-show announcements, quoted in the title to the very blog entry you’re now reading and played before the curtain went up on a David Mamet play. Then Mr. Teachout describes a rude rube distracting him, the rest of the audience, and the estimable actor John Douglas Thompson by catching up on some email in the midst of a performance of Mr. Teachout’s play for solo actor, Satchmo at the Waldorf. After expressing regret for letting the miscreant get away clean, Mr. Teachout makes a pledge and a challenge:
The time, then, has come for an unrelentingly aggressive campaign of public shaming. From now on, I swear to chew out on the spot any playgoer whom I catch using a cellphone in the middle of a performance. So should you. So should we all—and so should every stage actor in America.
This has made me dream of a pre-show announcement in which we say (and mean it) that if we see someone using an electronic device, an usher will come to that individual’s seat to photograph him, the stage manager will stop the show until the usher has escorted him out, and his name (we’ll get it from the box office) and mug shot will be posted online and in the lobby of the theatre (this can’t be much more illegal than simply wresting someone’s phone from them as Ms. LuPone did, can it?). If the errant audience member is a student, the photo will be used to identify him and his theatre teacher will issue a failing grade for the course.
As gratifying as that reverie may seem and as rousing as Mr. Teachout’s call-to-arms really is, though, I’m not sure even vigorous public shaming is the best prescription, or the last one we’ll need. Inspired by Mr. Teachout, at a performance last fall of another play here at SFA I let a fellow audience member have it. As I ground my teeth next to her, she sat texting away frantically as the house lights went down for the beginning of the show. When the stage lights also faded to black, not willing to have the show start with her still texting un-confronted by me, I said in a booming voice for the whole audience to hear, “Would you please turn off your device now? It’s SUPER-distracting.” She looked at me as if I were a lunatic (whether I am is not for me to diagnose, but anyway), she explained calmly that she was just finishing up a reply before turning it off (by now she was talking to me during the opening moments of the play itself), and then she shook her head and sighed with exasperation before moving several seats away from me.
Even if we all take up Mr. Teachout’s challenge, how many scenes will we demolish even more thoroughly than the texting-emailing-phoning demons themselves? How many times will we raise our own blood pressure to dangerous levels, risk our own dignity and reputation for sanity, and potentially scare off innocent theatre-goers in the process? And are we sure that Mr. Teachout is right that “That’ll shut ’em down”?
For now I’ve got nothing better. But I’m in a state of despair similar to the one described by Patti LuPone. I’ve just got fewer career options than she has.
If you’ve got ideas, please comment!