A Rant About Cell Phones in the Theater – but also about performing and connecting and personal weakness. . . Yeah. It’s one of those.

rantMy friend Charles (and now my friend Jen) shared this post on my Facebook about Patti LuPone confiscating an obsessive texter’s cell phone during a show. I was reading another ditty yesterday about how actors are getting angrier at their audiences. The cell phones, texting, talking, noisy eating, and lack of respect for space has become a pandemic at all levels of live performance. The ranting against it has become routine (as is this one). But I’ll continue to rant, because I think it needs to be regularly spelled out.

And it truly is a pandemic (see the end of this post for just a few more incidents of audience misbehavior). And while some folks seem to think this is the annoyance of a “silly” part of our culture and nothing else, those people do not take into account the imposition on other audience members, their time, money and experience.  They are  messing with performers’ work-spaces and interfering with the experience of those around them. This is an issue at movie theaters and concerts as well as live theatre.

And while people like to talk about actors being self-involved (many are NOT), I’d like to point out that at that moment, on that live stage, they are actually connecting with anywhere from dozens to hundreds of other people AT ONCE. That ability does not come for free to them. The emotional cost and the discipline that requires is unknown to most other people – particularly people who aren’t disciplined enough to turn their phone OFF for a few hours and master a little control over their focus.

Yes. Live performers ARE getting angrier at their audiences. And I don’t blame them.

There are more ways to connect at the theater.

And don’t give me that blather about “Well this is how the young people engage now.”  Yes, I know that angry pattioften those people texting in a performance are texting ABOUT the performance. But just as often they are making plans for cocktails or shopping on Amazon.  And while they may be able to take in some things in the performance, there is no way they are on board for the whole experience when looking down at a small screen instead of a stage.

If you want to live-tweet a performance, ask if the production has tweet-seats available. And then follow the rules. Otherwise, it doesn’t take long to fire up your phone at intermission to text and tweet how much you’re loving (or hating) a show.

Theaters love it when you photograph and share their program covers when you take your seat. They WANT you to tweet at intermission and post show. They will give you hashtags and step and repeat backdrops and, as often as not, actors to take selfies with after the show. They give you SO MANY WAYS to present yourself in social media while you spend your time with them. Do them the courtesy of giving them your attention while they are performing the show!

Performance is a REAL thing.

And, by the way,  many of those young people who are “engaging” while texting/posting are also just as likely to complain about not having an “authentic” experience available to them – that everything is so slick, packaged, manipulated and they’re tired of being marketed to and they’re just looking for something REAL.

WELL GUESS WHAT? Live theatre IS REAL! It is happening right in front of you, in the same room, breathing the same air you breathe. And while it is rehearsed and planned, it is rehearsed and planned to such an extent that it has the power to become spontaneous.

You know how you take the same route to work over and over again, so much so you can do it practically in your sleep? And once you know the route like the back of your hand, that’s when you you can start to think spontaneously and amazing thoughts and feelings and solutions and ideas start coming to you on your commute?  That’s what live performance is like. Going so deeply into a set of actions and characters that real and new things start to happen inside the pretend things. Then the audience bears witness to those things. It’s communal. Tribal. And requires everyone’s participation.

art is a lieThat’s the whole point, the whole objective. These performers craft a pretense so deeply that it tells the truth about being human, right there, in that moment, alive and breathing. Like humans! It isn’t robots doing and saying those things right there in that room. This isn’t a holodeck. They actually say those words to each other and they (almost) actually do those things to each other. They act and feel and respond AS IF the thing is real because if they’re doing it properly, it truly feels real.

They are human people, engaging fully in a human experience for your benefit.   Dance, comedy, theatre, performance art. . . it’s all the same. They’re communicating a true experience FOR YOU.  So the least you can do is give them your full attention for a few hours.

If you bought a ticket and set aside the time, fully invest yourself in that time. Get your money and your time’s worth! Don’t multi-task. In order to connect with something, you have to focus. Isn’t that what you really want to begin with? And if that isn’t what you want, I’m begging you. . . stay the hell away from a theater (movie, theatre, or otherwise). Because the rest of us DO want to connect, and you get in the way.

It’s a People Problem

And please don’t take this as another anti-technology rant. It is quite the opposite. I love my smart-phone and I love using social media. Communication is a big deal with me.

The problem isn’t the technology, the problem is a people problem. People love to blame technology for an inherent lack of discipline, for thoughtlessness, for self-absorption. All of those things were there before smartphones. We just see it in new ways now. People still sleep and talk and balance their checkbooks in the theater, by the way. I know. I’ve seen them, heard them, and performed in front of them.

challenge-and-changeBut no matter what form it comes in, it is weakness in ourselves and powerlessness over our impulses. And it is an inability to engage in something more expansive than one’s self. And that’s the real problem.

I don’t know exactly how we can curb the cell phone pandemic other than re-investing in house management and ushers and training. Most people silently seethe and tolerate violators of this basic community standard. Maybe they should be supported more if they speak up. Maybe there should be more public naming (Thank you Jonathon Groff and Lin-Manuel Miranda for calling out Madonna).

On an individual basis, though, we should ask ourselves every time we walk into a live performance, “Do I want to be the weakling who is controlled by my phone? Do I want to be the coward who refuses to fully participate in this? Or will I be as brave as those performers up there and give them my full attention? Will I take a chance and hope that a real connection happens right here and right now – and not somewhere else via my technology?”

WHICH WILL YOU BE?


Further reading!

Patti LuPone Explains Why She Confiscated Cellphone From “Rude, Self-Absorbed” Theatergoer Last Night

FaceTime in the Front Row? Updating Live: Kara Lindsay, Matt Doyle, Laura Benanti and More Sound Off on Theatre Etiquette

Exclusive! Meet the Guy Who Tried to Charge His Phone on Stage at Hand to God

One (possibly drunken) opinion piece at American Theater Magazine that entirely misses the point. The comment rebuttals are worth the read.

Coverage of one of my favorite incidents – The Cell Phone Throw at “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”:
Hold the Phone! Critic Kevin Williamson Sounds Off on Theatre Etiquette Following Natasha Cell Phone Incident

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Cell-Phone Smashing of 2013

Mike Daisey Wants To Buy The Guy Who Threw The Cell Phone A Drink

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