You Have One New Message
Rethinking our response to cell phones in the theatre
“We work hard on stage to create a world that is being totally destroyed by a few, rude, self-absorbed, and inconsiderate audience members who are controlled by their phones.”—Patti LuPone, after snatching a phone from a patron’s hands mid-show.
“I’ve learned a lot about the theatre in the past few days—theatre people are really passionate and have been very willing to educate me.”—Nick Silvestri, the Hand to God cell phone “cad.”
It was a rocky summer for the cell phones and theatre. After one audience member jumped onstage to charge his phone and a texter had her device swiped by Ms. Patti herself, AT&T tweeted an ad to advocate using your phone to watch the football game in the middle of a matinee.
This article isn’t intended to question the pros and cons of phone use at the theatre, but rather to question the industry’s response to these moments, and our culpability in them.
Attending theatre today is, in many ways, like entering an alternate universe. The rules of live theatre are different from almost any other realm of life: you can’t talk, use your phone, or eat or drink. Compare this to any other popular entertainment—movies, concerts, circus—and theatre is in a world of its own.
A great amount of time, energy, and resources are put towards bringing in new, non-traditional audiences. But what are we doing with those newbies once they arrive? How are we treating them to ensure they come back? We’re inviting them into our world—with its own rules and expectations—but are we doing enough to make them feel comfortable?
I recently took a job at an arts institution and in my first month there have been no fewer than five orientations on a variety of topics: the history of the institution, behind-the-scenes-tours, even an entire day dedicated to internal practices. Even with that orientation there are things I don’t know and questions I don’t have the answers to, but now I know who to speak with to find that answer. I am oriented.
A great amount of time, energy, and resources are put towards bringing in new, non-traditional audiences. But what are we doing with those newbies once they arrive? How are we treating them to ensure they come back?
At most theatres, the rules about cell phone use are expressed in two ways: signs in the lobby, which are easily overlooked in the crush of hundreds of people seeking for their seats, and via an announcement—often pre-recorded—played moments before the lights go down.
Think of any other instance in which a person is brought into a new world, and the orientation process is considerably more intimate and direct.
Think about customer service experiences that successfully welcome you to a world.
Flight attendant crews have recently begun turning the before-flight instructions about seat belts and air bags into entertainment. They take the boring (but legally required) information and spice it up, to the point that now many passengers expect this entertainment, and even look forward to it.
David’s Tea is a great company that goes above and beyond to immerse its customers in tea. I hate tea, or thought I did, before I went to David’s. For every customer who walks in, they ask, “Have you been here before?” and “Are you a tea drinker?” From there, they walk the customer through the options, offering suggestions, samples, and even getting the customer involved in the brewing process. You leave with a cup of tea, but also a greater appreciation about the world of tea, how it’s made, and all the options available.
Imagine if every Broadway house had a New-Theatre-Goer booth, where first-timers could check in for an overview of what to expect and meet a specific staff member personally dedicated to newcomers who can answer any questions. Maybe they even get a treat to say thanks—“Thank you for spending money and time to visit our world.”
Imagine a world where, instead of robotic voiceovers, the cast of every show performed a customized “turn off your phones and open your candy” announcement; an orientation into the world of the theatre, as well as the world of the play, clarifying the rules and expectations in a funny and personal way geared to that night’s show.
Imagine a world where new theatre-goers felt so well taken care of, and were so immersed in the world, that they couldn’t wait to come back.
The night after the cell-phone swipe, Ms. LuPone came out before the show to speak directly to the audience. It was a funny, emotional plea—a special treat from a star that clearly outlined the expectations of the world. You can bet no phones went off that night.
Much more effective than a pre-recorded voiceover.
In the instance of the “phone charge cad” at Hand To God, he leapt onstage before any such announcement was made. The show had not started—a fact captured by another audience member, using a cell phone.
In response, the theatre community erupted against this young man who “doesn’t go to the theatre much” and didn’t understand the rules: he was called “idiot,” and forced to give a public apology.
We in the community used this not as a teaching moment or a way to improve our standards for educating those who are open and willing enough to try us out—which considering the cost and the grandeur of a large theatre, can be an intimidating experience—but rather as a way to lambaste the “moron,” and a chance to show how witty and clever we are to mock new audience members who don’t know any better.
More and more venues and performances are allowing and even encouraging audience interaction via phone. Should every theatrical experience allow cell phones? No, of course not. Generally speaking, in a traditional theatrical experience, when the lights go dark, the phones should go off.
But that expectation is a rare thing in this world. And whatever the rules of a particular show may be, we do ourselves and our audiences—new or experienced—a disservice by not making those expectations clear for every single person present.
The bad news for theatre is that we live in a world full of hand-held technology, where word travels fast. And if the word travelling about our industry is that we bully newcomers who don’t know any better, those newcomers have more than enough alternative forms of entertainment to choose from. They don’t need us nearly as much as we need them.