Telephone Hour: Why the Cell Phone Epidemic in Our Theaters Matters More Than You Think

Alexa Juno

  • OnStage New York Columnist

We’ve all been there. Mid-show, encased in darkness, snugly nestled in seats that were clearly designed for the pocket people that roamed the earth when theatres were built, enraptured by an emotional solo or enthralled by a dramatic monologue. The room is silent. All eyes are forward. The culmination of years of relentless dedication and labor play out before our gaze. A writer’s story, a director’s carefully calculated vision, the innovations of countless designers, a performer’s years of training and study, and the seamless product of a hardworking crew hitting their marks, beautifully coalesce into one, singular moment. And then-- the unmistakable sound of the default iPhone ringtone 

As of late, the topic of cell phones in the theatre is one that has been written about ad nauseum within our community and it seems like every week there’s a new incident for those of us with public manners to roll our eyes at. We’ve had Patti screaming at audience members and snatching phones, Laura Benanti holding ‘She Loves Me’ to shame a phone user, people filming the sex scene at ‘Spring Awakening’, Sara Bareilles’ jokey-yet-dead-serious- pre-Waitress jingle imploring audience members to turn off their phones, Benedict Cumberbatch literally begging audience members to stop filming ‘Hamlet’, and my personal favorite, the guy who climbed onstage to use a fake set outlet to charge his phone before ‘Hand to God’.

Then there are the experiences witnessed firsthand. A ring during one of the most tender moments of ‘The Color Purple’, two phones going off literally minutes after the cell phone announcement at ‘The Crucible’, the completely abominable behavior of a matinee crowd of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ that saw several phones ringing, relentless chatter, and at one point, the gleam of an iPhone flashlight sweeping across our row, presumably as someone consulted the Playbill to see how much show was left so they could finally check Twitter.  

The latest of these, to the shock of no one and everyone, have come out of ‘Hamilton’. One would think that a show that people are re-financing their homes to see would be immune to this sort of behavior, but I digress.The show’s star, creator, and all around nice-guy, Lin Manuel Miranda, is not suffering the indignation gladly, tweeting public shamings of those using cell phones. He tweets:

“Our illegal photographers tonight: white guy black cap, 3 rows back, 3 seats in. Older woman 9 rows back, 7 seats in. We. Can. See. You....They're that specific because I report them to SM offstage. Then an usher comes to make them erase their pics...  You worked too hard to get those tix. I worked too hard to finish this show. So when I see your phone instead of your face's gutting. It sucks. I block you out. I'm sorry. Too many people are working too hard. You forfeit.”

As a composer and librettist, Lin’s perspective has certainly shone new light on an issue that up until this point has been regarded as an audience disruption and a distraction to the actors. Now, I will obviously not discount that mid-show disruptions are annoying and the danger to a distracted actor is very real, however, Lin brings a new angle to all this. How often to we get to hear from a writer on this subject? Aside from the actors, we never get to hear from anyone behind the curtain about this. Lin’s take not only acknowledges the obvious environmental factors, but has introduced the idea that this isn’t a crime to one audience, one specific time and place, a singular deflated moment, but to theatre as a whole. And he’s absolutely right. 

As an art form, theatre is specifically designed to audience to an entirely different time and place. Most shows are built upon the notion that the audience is willing to be transported. (That’s why there’s no windows and you’re in the dark. We’re trying to trap you, like a supermarket or a casino.) Each and every second counts and has been crafted by countless individuals to create a complete experience. 

In that way, a ringing phone or the LED light from your screen is not just an affront to your fellow audience members and the company onstage, but to each and every person working behind the scenes to keep that experience intact. To the writer who put love and effort into a story they felt needed to be told, whose words were meant to be heard as an uninterrupted body of work. To the director whose vision has lovingly shaped each and every beat of the show. To the stage manager sitting offstage calling hundreds of cues to the second and to the stagehands that react to those cues with an equal amount of precision. To the designers, choreographers, dance captains, wardrobe departments, lighting and sound board operators, conductors, front of house staff, and all of the other hardworking people in and outside of the building who contribute to just one evening at the theatre. 

And I think perhaps this is the most important facet that has been left out of the cell phone conversation. To enter a theatre is to enter a machine, full of living, breathing human cogs and wheels that keep it running smoothly. To use a phone within that machine is not simply disruptive to those within the immediate area, but a criminal wrench thrown into the mechanics of what we strive to create. A kink in a chain of hundreds of people who have trained and worked tirelessly to create what you see. A slap in the face to all those who strive to produce an uninterrupted and flawless product.

So, please, turn off your cell phone. Be transported. Come completely to the theatre or forfeit.

Too many people are working too damn hard.