By Bill Hirschman
Even for South Florida theater with its reputation for audience bad behavior, the June 25 incident may have posted a past-the-pale moment indicative of an out-of-control problem.
In Island City Stage’s darkened theater the size of some living rooms, a glow like a bright flashlight issued from a cellphone as a front row patron stuck his feet out into the cramped acting area and, once again, began texting. This time it occurred just as actors Antonio Amadeo and Laura Turnbull were deep into one of the most emotional moments in the acclaimed and intense gay marriage play, Daniel’s Husband.
Four other people further back had done the same during the performance, but this man had been especially noticeable by whipping out the lighted device during blackouts for scene changes in order to check Facebook phone and to text messages himself.
“I was so distracted, I nearly dropped a line,” Amadeo recalled later. “I was so angry.”
Seated behind the man was actress Margery Lowe debating whether to speak up. “I didn’t want to be the one complaining, but about the third time, I couldn’t take it anymore and I finally lost my temper and I said, ‘Can you please turn that off?’…. He was shocked that anybody would say that.”
The collision of technology, performance art, the obsession with staying connected and the etiquette of communal interaction is ratcheting up in South Florida theaters, said local actors, directors and other theater professionals. Cellphone ringing has been a problem for a decade or more, but the phenomenon of checking and responding to email during a performance has mushroomed in recent years and has given offenders another impetus not to turn off a cellphone that might ring during a show.
The epidemic is forcing actors and theaters to look more closely at ways patrons, actors and venue managers can cope.
Veteran local actress Patti Gardner, who admits throwing a gum wrapper once at a texter while she sat in an audience, said, “We all work hard to preserve those moments when you are transported and when (a cellphone goes off), I’m filled with rage.”
And the problem of clueless behavior is hardly confined to South Florida. Last week, the theater world was bemused when a drunken young man went up on stage before the start of the Broadway black comedy Hand To God and tried to plug his cellphone into a bogus outlet on the set. Days later, Broadway star Patti Lupone, famed for not suffering fools gladly, put up with someone texting through the first act of Shows For Days at Lincoln Center. But when the offender resumed texting in the second act, LuPone strode into the audience, took the cellphone away and gave it the stage manager on her next exit.
“I want them to win Shirley Jackson’s lottery,” Lowe joked, a short story which ends with a public stoning.
Amadeo discovered that his own babysitter attending Daniel’s Husband one night texted one of the show’s wittier lines during the performance.
Theater patron Deborah Sharp recalls sitting in the first few rows of Spamalot the musical at the Broward Center. “Ring. Ring. Ring. Man behind us fumbles, finally answers, in a loud, obnoxious accent. ‘’I can’t talk. I’m at the movies,’ he says into his cell. ’The movies,’ he fairly shouts. Pause. ‘I said THE MOVIES,’ he repeats, yet again. I turn around: ‘You’re at a play,’ I hiss. ‘And please hang up your stupid phone.’ ”
It may be obvious (although apparently not to everyone) but a cellphone ring, the ambient light from someone checking Facebook or even people whispering approval of that last scene to a spouse rips apart the delicate illusion of real life, no matter how surreal or hilarious the scene — the precious facet that makes the theater experience distinctly different from any other storytelling vehicle.
Taking it a step further, theater requires the audience to consciously insert themselves into that ongoing imaginary truth and forget their surroundings in order to enjoy the evening to the utmost, Lowe said.
Amadeo has seen cellphone misbehavior affect “this odd chemistry between the actors and the audience. It starts getting funky and they start getting annoyed, they (and the actors) are taken out of it the groove.”
Actors pouring their guts out on stage see and hear much of the texting and whispering, even in a large auditorium, said Paul Tei, actor, director and founder of Mad Cat Theatre Company. “Sometime people don’t realize that we are like an athlete; your senses are super hyper aware of what’s going on, your sense of smell, sensitivity to lighting.”
Such disruptions “take you out of the moment,” Amadeo said, especially in the small theaters where many non-profit companies perform. “The more and more (stage acting tends to resemble) filmic realism and theater becomes less presentational and more naturalism, it’s really important to be uber in the moment and real.” While actors are trained to cope with surprises, “the fact is we’re human beings thinking ‘people turn the effing phone off,’ ” he said.
Talking, texting or ringing during blackouts and scene changes is still disruptive, Lowe said. “The scene changes are where the audience has a chance to breathe and take in what they just saw and mentally process what you just saw and transition yourself to the next scene, for the audience as much as the actors.”
Bells Are Ringing
Even after a pre-show request from the management to turn off phones, many people simply stuff their still lit phone in their pocket or purse without even putting it on mute. Others never check at all whether it is turned on, either assuming that they had turned it off or more often simply not caring. In some cases, when the phone rings, some fumble to turn it off (by the way, touching almost any button on a phone silences the ring). “It’s always in the bottom of their pocketbook,” Lowe said. But some just ignore it and let it ring four or five times, or let the full ringtone song play through, waiting for the caller to give up.
Tellingly, even those who turn off the device, often turn it back on to scroll through during intermission and don’t bother to turn it off afterward.
But more common these days is someone pulls out their phone, turns it on and scrolls for messages and Facebook oddities, answering them with texts of full messages. This can often be seen at matinees where a younger caregiver accompanies an elderly patron to the production of a warhorse musical they don’t care for.
What’s Your Problem?
The horror stories are legion and the offenders cross all ages, sexes and economic strata. Yet the rude or thoughtless behavior goes far beyond cellphones, which implies that the roots are deeper than technology. The undocumented but obvious uptick in frequency underscores how 21st century technology has enabled sociological and psychological shortcomings, observers said.
A key issue is that many people now feel viscerally uncomfortable disconnected from the flow of life. “We’re getting into a point of social media where there are people who cannot put their phone down and cannot look up from the phones,” Amadeo said.
That directly conflicts with the idea of theater, Tei said. “I don’t think people have the capacity to sit down and let themselves enjoy the act of silence, enjoy the act of acceptance, and let the production values wash over them. With the social media and the need to drive the kids to soccer practice, whatever their lives are about, they forget to just let it go…. It’s a slow art form, a patient art form. It asks people to just relax for a while, and that in this day and age is something that people don’t do.”
That’s the more generous analysis from the theater people interviewed. But they have a less charitable explanation as well: the growth of a self-centered society that only focuses on what its members want, with no sense of responsibility to the people around them, something less intentionally rude so much as unthinkingly egocentric.
“I can only guess that a lot of what is happening is part of The Me Society,” Amadeo said. “Nobody thinks you’re talking to them, nobody thinks they’re fallible.”
Many have a sense of entitlement nurtured by the reality show ethos that everyone is due their 15 minutes of fame, Tei said. “Andy Warhol was more spot on than Nostradamus could ever hoped for.”
Enhancing that feeling is the price of a theater ticket, he said. “When you start asking people to pay a lot of money for things, whether it’s a restaurant or play, there is a sense of entitlement…. It’s just that they have a right to feel to do what they want.”
How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria
Actors have few options because they are torn between reacting to a disruption, thereby worsening the damage to the fabric of the theatrical illusion, or just trying to ignore it.
Almost everyone echoed Lowe and Amadeo who said a professional generally soldiers on, although they endorse shooting off a witty line if it fits the context of the scene. It may put a blip in the flow of the show, but it’s minimal.
For example, during GableStage’s run of A Steady Rain, actor Todd Allen Durkin was deep into a monologue through a repeated ringing. Without breaking character as a tough as nails policeman, Durkin growled, “Would someone get that phone?”
Another option is the freeze. At a staged reading of Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh at Outré Theatre Company in March, actresses Sabrina Lynn Gore and Katharine Amadeo were in an intense confrontation when a patron’s cellphone rang in the studio theater at the Broward Center. It rang and rang and rang. The offender and her partner not only didn’t silence it, they audibly argued about how to turn it off. Gore and Amadeo simply froze wordlessly and motionless for a full minute while the couple figured out the advanced technology.
Then there’s the nuclear option such as LuPone’s confiscation of the phone. LuPone is famous for admonishing bad behavior, such as in 2009 when she called out someone taking photographs. But she is not alone. Actors Brian Dennehy, Kevin Spacey, Hugh Jackman and Laurence Fishburne have similarly halted a show to scold a disruptive patron.
Florida Grand Opera’s General Director and CEO Susan Danis used to manage the Sarasota Opera. There, she recalls, the maestro would stop the show cold when an audience member misbehaved electronically or otherwise. “He’d turn to them and say, ‘When you shut up, I’ll start the opera again.’ ”
Local actors are split on such actions as LuPone’s, even while sympathizing. “I can’t say as an actor that I agree with her,” Lowe said. “I don’t think she should have broken the fourth wall. There are people there who waited six months to a year for those tickets.”
But Amadeo said, “I have trouble faulting them. If an audience member is yelled at by someone of significance, they’ll remember. The whole audience will remember.” Not to mention that the scolding gets covered by the media and continues the public’s general education on theater etiquette.
Gardner quipped, “There’s shame involved there and everybody in the audience witnesses that. Shame is a good thing. “
Interviewees suggested varied groups of stakeholders should fight back.
First, most actors like Lowe said they welcome an audience member quietly telling the offender to shut off their phone, censure them when it rings or asking them to stop chattering when they are disturbing other people.
Patrons might be reluctant to make things worse, especially if the offenders push back. But the damage to the mood has already been done so “you can’t get more disruptive than the person texting,” Gardner said.
Second, it should not be up to the patrons; ushers have to be far more aggressive than they are in most South Florida houses, the theater professionals said.
“I think the onus is on the theater itself to make sure that their ushers are like those kids at Wimbledon who run out there to get the balls. They should be sitting quietly and be willing to pounce on bad behavior,” Tei said.
Most theaters recruit volunteers to hand out programs and escort patrons to their seats in exchange for seeing the show for free. But at many houses, once the show starts, the ushers sit down and watch the play and never get up to patrol the aisles.
“They are not all that interested in being policemen,” Amadeo said.
Tei suggested having ushers not see the specific show they are working; instead, they would get free tickets to come back to a performance they are not working.
The policies differ wildly at various venues. At the Arsht Center in Miami, ushers roam the aisles before the show asking people to turn off their cellphones. In theory, they have wide discretion after the house lights go down, but they are required to act anytime they see someone taking photographs, a source said. But at every house in the region, any observer can see that few ushers confront a cellphone offender mid-show.
In the case of Island City Stage’s home at Empire Stage in Fort Lauderdale, there is only one entrance at one end of the room, putting most offenders out of reach of low-key action by management.
There are exceptions. Theda Reale, house manager at Palm Beach Dramaworks, asks her ushers to seek her out if there is an egregious offender. She said she’s been known to march mid-performance into the second row and temporarily confiscate a device.
In some theaters around the country, ushers stroll down the aisles with a tightly-focused bright light which they shine the faces of the offenders mid-show.
But it’s not possible to have a standardized policy, some theater spokesmen said. Sometimes the ushers’ actions depend on the wishes of a specific production company or even the changing nature of what constitutes a theatrical production.
“In some places and for some shows, audience members are encouraged to post, tweet and take photos to share,” Jan Goodheart, vice-president of External Affairs for the Broward Center for the Performing Arts wrote in an e-mail.
“…And that means that our staff may have to adapt from time to time. Prior to each performance, our Guest Services team meets with our ushers to review policies related to the show regarding late seating, photography, and the use of mobile devices which can vary based on the wishes of the artist or the show.’
But working against the natural inclination for producers and house managers to crack down is the fact that theaters are loathe to alienate any audience members, least of all the younger patrons ignorant theatergoing etiquette, said Michael Leeds, associate artistic director of Island City Stage.
Third, the pre-show announcement about cellphones has to be something that people pay attention to. Interviewees advised not to use a taped message because people never pay attention to those. But even delivered live by an artistic director or stage manager, it cannot be a perfunctory quick checklist admonition that people tune out like being told how to operate their life vests on a plane. Instead, it has to be a friendly, but pointed message preferably delivered with humor and imagination rather than having a scolding tone. It also helps to do it in a spotlight after the house lights go down and people stop reading their programs or talking to their seatmates.
Tei said that he felt condescended to when a young actor at Zoetic Stage’s production of Betrayal last month at the Arsht was tasked to ask everyone to take out their cellphones and then turn them off. But “I did not hear one cellphone, for the first time in ages,” he said admiringly.
At last month’s production of Into The Woods by Entr’acte Theatrix in Delray Beach, a young staffer came out before the show and asked everyone to take their cellphones out and take a selfie, post it to the company’s hashtag and then turn them off.
Movie theaters have taken to setting off an avalanche of cellphone sound effects to make their point before the movie starts.
There is even a if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em philosophy evolving. Danis said she’s heard of some companies considering a segregated cellphone-allowed area of the theater.
But the real answer, most said, is to educate people that they are undergoing a communal experience—with communal responsibilities – that relies on the preservation of a mood. Audiences, young and old, have to be taught that turning off their cellphones is part of a routine.
That, everyone agreed, will be an uphill process. But Lowe asked, “Of course, I don’t understand why you bother coming, if you can’t take 90 minutes to give yourself over.”