cellphones.jpgAdrift on the Tide of DIGITAL RUDENESS

Smart technology, dumb decisions.

The rise of the smart phone brought with it a swelling sea of new behaviors unimagined in the standard book of theater etiquette. The basic manners were thus: arrive early, stay home if you are sick, bring plenty of lozenges to prevent coughing – but unwrap them before the curtain – and wait until intermission to retrieve anything from a handbag.

The driving principles for theater etiquette evolved out of the audiences’ desire to respect the hard work of the performers and show a similar respect for fellow patrons, all of whom, for the enchanting few hours of live
theater, agree to suspend in stage magic. Any distraction – cellophane crinkling, clasps unsnapping, unchecked coughing – breaks the spell. Crying babies signified the most blatant act of theater tyranny.

Until cell phones.

Since Patti LuPone’s now infamous two-minute confrontation, the roster of actors bursting from the fourth wall to address an audience member’s use of a cell phone during their performance includes Hugh Jackman, Amanda Palmer, Kevin Spacey, Neil Patrick Harris, famed Italian actor Gabriele Lavia, British icon Patrick Stewart and,
most recently, James McAvoy, who had to step out of the title role in Shakespeare’s Scottish play to scold a man for filming the performance.

LuPone, later in her 2009 interruption, captured the consensus of artists who must deal with the epidemic of audiences disregarding the sanctity of live theater to scroll through social media or send text messages or – and this happens often – answer a call: “I have to say this: we have forgotten our public manners.”

All around, the cell phone, smart phone and tablet contain several annoying qualities: bright screens that can be seen on stage as well as throughout an audience, noises, beeps, buzzes, blaring ringtones, cameras and audio recording functions. All it takes is one person to sully a show for hundreds of others, but the fact is that today’s audiences commonly contain multiple people using their phones during a show. Theater bloggers and social theorists point to in-home theaters as a root cause of digital rudeness (people formed a habit of not having to worry about anyone else’s experience) and speculate that a growing addiction to self-importance detaches the modern first-world social-media culture from understanding the concept of civility in a “real time” shared experience. In other words, people assume their relationship with their device trumps their relationship to others.

Theater critics also voice their deep, personal horror at the swelling trends of digital disregard that appear so frequently with today’s audiences that many fear it is the new norm. Some critics, however, refuse to sit idly by
while manners devolve around the ubiquity of technology. National Review writer Kevin Williamson, in a May 2013 incident, was removed from a theater for the first time in his life when, after asking a woman to turn off her phone and she refused, he snatched it from her and tossed it across the room. The woman threatened to press charges, to which Williamson replied: “In a civilized world, I would have received a commendation of some sort.” Theater-defending website later recounted the story under the headline HEROIC THEATERGOER SMASHES CELL PHONE, GETS THROWN OUT, even though many less demonstrative members of the performing arts community suggested Williamson may have overreacted. But many others, as with LuPone, gave Williamson resounding applause for taking a stand.

Around the globe, theaters and performing arts centers remain uncertain of how to sail their ships in this rising
tide of inconsiderate cellular storms: who’s responsible for confronting the rudeness; or, is anyone? Will patrons ever awake from this screen coma and regain their manners? Time will tell. Until then, the ship must sail on.


On the other hand, social media makes great marketing, and some shows and performers capitalize on device dependency by allowing photos and filming for free mass marketing on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others. Last summer, the Straz Center’s resident theater company, Jobsite Theater, encouraged patrons to take pictures
during the musical numbers in Return to the Forbidden Planet and post them online with hashtags that were provided on cards in table toppers throughout the Jaeb Theater. Instead of devices being divisive, they became part of the show. More and more musicians and other types of rowdy-crowd performances incorporate fan photos and embrace the marketing opportunities to multiply their images worldwide. Venues clearly state whether or not
photos and recording are allowed, yet most continue to remind patrons to silence their cell phones before the
performance, even if phones can be used for media.
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