Of Cell Phone Heroes and On Stage Tweets

Cell phones in theatres.

Which camp are you in?  Are you a frustrated witness or a cell phone etiquette abuser/ignoramus yourself? Almost all of us get really annoyed by that obnoxious guy who strides around the airport having extremely important and highly confidential business conversations at the top of his lungs on his bluetooth handsfree headset that makes it look like he’s talking to himself.  Or the friend who answers her cell while out to lunch with you, right in the middle of what you thought was a pretty interesting story you were telling about the play you saw last night.  So, theatres routinely remind us, often with humor, always with serious advance gratitude, to turn off our cell phones before curtain up.

Well, sometimes patrons ignore that request.  Apparently, at the May 15th performance of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 (the terrific Russian supper club musical by Dave Malloy I wrote a post about a couple of weeks ago), that happened and Kevin Williamson  got pretty frustrated about it.  As writer John Del Signore  put it in his piece on the incident, “one theatergoer’s incessant cell phone use finally drove [Mr. Williamson] over the edge… into vigilantism.” With permission of the author, I here quote extensively from John Del Signore’s story in Gothamist  May 16, 2013  titled Heroic Theatergoer Smashes Cell Phone, Gets Thrown Out where he describes what happened:

(Chad Batka)

(Chad Batka)

” . . . The audience is closely clustered at small tables throughout the room, and while there is food and beverage service before the show and during intermission, the performance itself takes place with zero table service interruptions, and the atmosphere is as quiet and attentive as any other conventional stage play. At least it’s supposed to be. Although each table is explicitly told that photography and cell phone use is strictly prohibited during the performance, the people seated around Williamson were, he says, unbearable. “They were carrying on a steady conversation throughout [the] entire show,” Williamson, who also writes a theater column for New Criterion, tells us. “They had been quite loud and obnoxious the entire time.  . . .[T]he woman sitting to Williamson’s right on his bench would not, he says, stop using her cell phone. “It looked like she was Googling or something,” Williamson tells us. “So I leaned over and told her it was distracting and told her to put it away. She responded, ‘So don’t look.’

Blood boiling, Williamson says he then asked her, sarcastically, “whether there had been a special exemption for her about not using her phone during the play. She told me to mind my own business, and so I took the phone out of her hands. I meant to throw it out the side door, but it hit some curtains instead. I guess my aim’s not as good as it should be.” Asked if the phone was damaged, Williamson says, “It had to be; I threw it a pretty good distance.” According to Williamson, the woman then slapped him in the face and, after failing to find her phone, stormed out. . .”

(For an eyewitness account from a thoughtful and balanced point of view, including the potential danger of a cell phone thrown at high speed, see Rob Weinert-Kendt‘s post today in one of my favorite theatre blogs: the wickedstage.)

Ever since cell phones were too big to bring to theatres in your purse or pocket, cell phone etiquette has evolved, been debated,  or, worst of all, been shrugged off completely by the worst offenders.  A still pertinent, three year old Huffington Post piece by Bianca Bosker sets out, complete with diagrams (!):  Cell Phone Etiquette: 15 Rules to Follow and would seem too obvious except that even more obvious is that many people either don’t know or don’t care enough to follow them.

Cell phone use in theatres has been a subset of the problem all along.  Cell phones — and their lights and sounds — are yet another terrible way to break the magic spell; to interrupt the actors’ concentration and the audiences’ rapt engagement with what is happening on stage.  Who can forget Patti Lupone’s famous rant in 2009 when she stopped cold in the middle of a performance of Gypsy on Broadway to yell at an audience member taking flash photos with a cell phone?   I groaned inside when I read last December about the Guthrie Theatre’s  testing designated “tweet seats” in their balcony where audience members would be allowed, no, “encouraged” to use twitter during the performances.   Maybe this IS the future as the latest episode of “Smash” implies with its positive exposition of a novel idea of a Broadway show incorporating real time tweets and audience chat-back projections on stage.

Sorry, I have to go now, I have a call coming in…

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1 Comment

  1. Michele Epstein
    Jun 10, 2013

    Last fall I attended a performance of Electra at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. My friend and I sat down next to a woman who was using her cell phone prior to the performance but didn’t turn it off when the play started. She appeared to be googling and reading text. I leaned over to my friend and asked her to request that the phone needed to be turned off since the flashing lights were very distracting. The woman replied that she was not familiar with the play we were watching and needed some background information to enhance her enjoyment. My friend repeated her request and she finally turned it off. We noticed that she turned it on a while later but faced the screen toward her companion. A sad commentary on a clueless theatergoer.

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