Phone Cards

It certainly was eye-opening to see how much anger, exasperation, and other interest was generated by the discussion here and on Facebook (on my profile and at about the mobile phone problem in the theatre.  There is still some concern about phones ringing or vibrating audibly, but even more now about patrons actually turning on smart phones mid-show, usually for texting, email, or something similar.

The main reaction from most of us on stage and behind the scenes in the theatre does seem to be outrage.  But “an unrelentingly aggressive campaign of shaming” audience members who engage in distracting behavior, as prescribed by critic/playwright Terry Teachout in a blog post last year, may not be completely harmonious with our other goals for audience development, as the dynamic artistic director Lauren “Warhol” Caldwell pointed out.  Some (including the illustrious Alfred Molina, in a July 10 post on his Facebook profile) have asserted that treating audiences badly and/or presenting them with inadequately compelling theatre may have played a role in bringing us to the current juncture.

So.  What is to be done?

I hope we can agree that we should all be doing our best to keep ticket prices affordable, treat our audience members with courtesy and respect, and provide them with a comfortable and pleasant theatregoing experience.  It should also go without saying, I think, that we should all be working to make theatre that’s compelling enough to make people want to look at the stage more than their Samsung Galaxy Note 4.

Beyond those givens, I feel I may have learned a few things in the course of the conversation, maybe had some small epiphanies, and (as unlikely as it seems) perhaps had a useful idea.  First I think we need to keep in mind that the vast majority of our audiences want to see the whole show undisturbed by bright smart-phone screens or noises; threatening and berating all of them indiscriminately is apt to be counterproductive if we want the theatre to be a place where people want to go.  I’ve also realized that my natural shyness and aversion to confrontation may have kept me from doing my best to work on this in my own theatre.  I’m haunted by the remark that using devices should be treated like smoking, because I can’t remember ever seeing someone light up in the theatre and I would love for us to find our way to a culture in which the current distractions are equally unthinkable.  Finally, I do think calling thoughtless people to account needs to be part of our strategy.

I’ve come to believe that maximizing audience engagement is probably a key to success in all this.  My impression is that smart-phone screens are less frequently seen in intimate 99-seat black boxes than in 1,000-seat proscenium spaces, not only because the smaller audience size means a smaller group of potential offenders but also because in the cozy theatres audience members feel less anonymous and more a part of the audience community–and of the show itself.  Perhaps we can psychologically “shrink” our theatres by making stronger connections with our audiences.  The estimable playwright, librettist and director William M. Hoffman inspired me in this discussion by recalling a production at which he personally asked the entire audience, at every performance, to take out their mobile phones and turn them on, then asked the stage manager and light-board operator to lower the house lights and stage lights so that everyone could admire the effect–and presumably think for a moment about just how bright those darned screens look in a darkened theatre.  Patti LuPone also inspired me, less (on reflection) by snatching a textophillic audience member’s phone than with her charming, personal, heartfelt chat with the next night’s audience about why it really matters so much if someone checks out of the performance to check in with a BFF on an iPhone.  The staff at Michael Halberstam’s Writers Theatre in Chicago had previously inspired me with a sincere, crystal clear curtain speech about the connection between play and audience that makes that company so special–and how their regular audience knows that a phone-wielding audience member inevitably breaks that connection.

Long ago, when I was the day-to-day leader of a professional resident theatre company in New York, I truly loathed making curtain speeches (and our board members wanted us always to make them, mostly to beg for money).  I argued that they seemed amateurish and impeded the audience’s journey into the world of the play, but mostly I just felt awkward and wanted to stay hidden safely in the theatre’s office.  Today I think it’s imperative at least to experiment with incarnate (rather than pre-recorded) curtain speeches that are extemporaneous and demonstrative enough to excite the interest of theatregoers and potentially impress upon them that something of significance is being said.  I feel the need now to say, for example, “Almost everywhere now it’s normal to pull out your phone and connect with the outside world, but this needs to be a special and magical place apart from all the rest, where you really cannot do that.”  I want to say clearly that, “If you use your phone during the play, even very briefly, you may not think you are distracting other audience members, but truly you are; your quick look at your phone can literally ruin the play for dozens or hundreds of others that have invested the cost of the ticket plus the time to get here and park and watch and get home.”  I want to say honestly that, “The actors can see you and hear you, and in live theatre your participation in the event is deeply meaningful to them and everyone else involved in the show.  When you turn on your phone you not only distract them, you hurt their feelings–they’ve spent many hours over many weeks shedding blood, sweat, and tears preparing to offer themselves to you tonight, and it’s truly painful for them if you dismiss them and their work by behaving as if they’re more boring than a cell phone.”

I know this won’t work for everyone.  Probably some immature or downright sociopathic types still won’t hear it.  Probably some immature or downright sadistic types will revel in ruining plays for throngs of people and wounding the tender hearts of thespians.  But I still think we’ve got to give people the best possible chance to understand the implications of their mostly thoughtless actions–regardless of how much I will truly writhe as I stand before them trying to articulate all this.

In my own situation, producing and directing university theatre for an audience made up partly of students that attend mostly or entirely because it’s a course requirement, I need to get more involved in preparing that part of the audience.  It will be one more thing for already-overwhelmed faculty, staff, and students to do, but I think we’ve got to get the artists that are doing the plays into those classrooms to talk about why it’s not just “theatre etiquette” that we’re talking about, it’s involvement that’s integral to theatre itself.  This won’t work perfectly or completely either, but here again I’ve come to think we’ve got to try.

Lest you think I’ve gone completely soft, let me add that I still think we need to hold audience members accountable.  My dilemma has been that any immediate intervention–an usher or house manager charging down an aisle, for example, leaning over several people to whisper (loudly enough to be understood) to someone that he’s breaking the rules and disturbing fellow patrons and distracting the performers, possibly followed by some argument or discussion (“I just need to finish making this dinner reservation on OpenTable and then I’ll turn it off until it’s time to get an Uber ride!”)–just seems to compound the problem.  Distraction piled on distraction.

In an effort to change the culture, I think we need to enlist the help of the vast majority of audience members that don’t want to be bothered by phone users any more than we do.  I would like to add to the curtain speech perhaps a quick poll (“Please raise your hand if you really are bothered by someone using a cell phone in the audience, even if it’s done silently”) and then a request to join the effort to educate and reform those few that still don’t get it.  But this too holds the potential to create more disturbance rather than less; we don’t want shouting matches or wrestling scrums to break out routinely in the orchestra-center section when vigilante ticket-holders take matters into their own hands.

So how about this?  It needs fine-tuning, it won’t work every time, and it may seem a bit extreme at first, but bear with me.  Could we provide every audience member with an index card (perhaps tucked in the program but I think better handed out separately) printed with a statement such as “Please turn off your device.  It’s distracting me.  Thanks.”?  Would some, many, or even most audience members be willing to hand the card to a stranger in the next seat over or the next seat down, perhaps even placing it directly over a smart-phone screen to get the message across?  Might this work, silently but effectively?  I want to give it, or something like it, a try.  I do hope it doesn’t lead to a new norm in which the ushers hand each audience member a whole packet of cards with different statements (“Your candy wrappers are driving me to homicidal distraction;” “Please stop asking your companion what was just said on stage–I’ll give you a full plot summary in the lobby when this act is over;” etc.).

I’m still mulling the question of latecomers.  The people that missed the impassioned curtain speech entirely because they got to the theatre ten minutes after the scheduled curtain time also seem to me unusually likely candidates to forget to turn off their ringers and maybe also to check basketball scores or reply to a “Wassup” text just as Juliet is preparing to go all hara-kiri, Elizabethan style.  Here’s my fantasy tactic, which I think is probably too punitive or perhaps just impractical.  When audience members arrive after the house lights have dimmed, the usher or house manager informs them, politely and even regretfully, that they can’t be seated until intermission–unless each and every one of them turns over a phone to be held by the staff until the end of the performance.  Didn’t bring a phone? Sorry, you’ll have to wait until the break.  Too much?

To sum up, I think we (directors, producers, front-of-house staff, teachers, and even like-minded audience members) need to roll up our sleeves and get elbows-deep in this problem.  No one wants to do this less than I do–I would so love to leave it to others and remain in the background muttering softly to myself.  But this problem really is threatening the well-being of dramatic storytelling for communal audiences.  We may already be losing audience members that have gotten fully fed up (I myself stopped going to movie theatres years ago); we could lose invaluable artists such as Patti LuPone, who felt like throwing in the towel after the incident; we could find one fine day that theatre artists everywhere have just melted into exasperated puddles of goo, which is how I sometimes feel I’ll end up myself.

What do you think?  Right track?  Wrong track?  Ideas worth adopting, others worth only a derisive laugh?  And what other ideas would you propose?

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