The Problem with Cell Phones

We all know that the first week and a half of July was filled with news of cell phone fiascos in the theatre world. First was the Long Island moron at the Booth Theatre who thought he’d plug his phone in on the (fake) outlet built into the set of Hand to God. The very next day at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, Patti LuPone got fed up with an audience member’s nonstop cellphone usage and used her exit as a chance to swipe the offending texter’s phone.

Following these irritating incidents, many Broadway stars spoke out about where they stand on cellphone use. Not a single person was in favor of cell phones in the theatre. Without a single murmur of dissent, actors of all ages and successes sounded off about why a phone in the theatre can destroy a performance. Reasons ranged from distracting the actors who have put years into their craft to distracting the audience who have spent their hard-earned money to see the show and escape from the world. I personally agree with every single one of them, but especially with Janet Krupin (Bring It On!, Hands on a Hardbody, If/Then) who simply stated, “This [the theatre] is our church. Come to worship or don’t come at all.”

No matter what you personally think about cell phones in theatres, there is something very important you should know about New York City’s policy on the matter. As of February 2003, the use of cell phones is prohibited by law “in any indoor theater, library, museum, gallery, motion picture theater, concert hall or building in which theatrical, musical, dance, motion picture, lecture or other similar performances are exhibited.” So not only are these people aggravating those around them, they’re breaking the law.

Admittedly, this law is difficult, if not impossible to enforce, which was Mayor Bloomberg’s reason for vetoing the law in the first place. However, the City Council passed it and appointed a $50 fine for offenders. The problem is that enforcing this law would require ushers to further disrupt audience members by arguing with undoubtedly argumentative audience members. Anyone rude enough to use a cell phone while at a performance (live or otherwise) is not likely to back down easily.

It is important to note that this law does not say cell phones are only prohibited when the performance is happening; they are illegal the moment you step into the building. It’s interesting to consider that when you think of how many theatres have photo-worthy posters, cast lists, merchandise, and marketing materials displayed in their lobby.

So what can we do? If theatre management is going to enforce this law in order to keep the theatre a place of peaceful enjoyment, how can they go about it without disrupting audiences even more than a cell phone does?

One option is to confiscate cell phones. Offer lockers or a sort of bag check. Of course, people aren’t likely to be happy about this and it could turn away potential patrons. Another is to impose stricter consequences for those who break the rules and the law. Kick out patrons whose phones go off or make appearances during the performance. Perhaps the reason people are so loose about their cell phone use is because there’s no reason not to be. It’s easy to ignore glares and sighs from your fellow audience members if you don’t really fear any aftereffect. But slap a $50 fine on top of the price of a theatre ticket and suddenly people will be double-checking that their phones are turned off completely.

For those who protest that a text or call might be a matter of life-or-death: if you’re waiting on a heart transplant or a dying relative, maybe tonight isn’t the night to go to the theatre. If you can’t leave your child with a babysitter for two hours without checking in, maybe they aren’t old enough to have a babysitter. If you are able to come to the theatre, you should be able to detach from your phone long enough to enjoy what is happening in front of you. The people, the live human beings up there on the stage, have worked for months or years on what they are showing you. Respect that.

Theatre is about human connection. Actors are storytellers and the audience is there to receive that gift and give back with their attention. When that connection is broken by a cell phone, the message and the art get lost.

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