On the State of Cell Phones in the Theatre

Sometimes we forget to turn off our phones. Sometimes we hear that preshow announcement, and the warning from the usher before entering the theater, and the warning from the usher before the curtain rises as she stares you down specifically and directly, and we still decide not to take action. We think, “It’s on ‘Do Not Disturb.’ Why go through the extra effort?” or “I think it’s on vibrate? Probably? It’ll be fine.” Sometimes we just don’t feel like it and that’s reason enough.

And now the house lights are dark and Hamlet’s doing that mopey schtick he does (that rascal!) and you’re invested. Like, now your boy Hamlet’s talking to ghosts n’ shit? That’s tight.

And then the inevitable happens. People cover their faces in exasperation. They scoff, shush, kick the back of your chair. Now you’re the asshole.

It happens. I’d guess most of us have been the asshole at some point or another. A mistake is a mistake, right? And all things considered, it’s a pretty easy mistake to make. And, being an easy mistake to make, the chances for such a gaffe arising is multiplied by the number of audience members with cellphones—which is nearly all of them.

And when someone’s paid close to $100 a ticket, schlepped across midtown, and spent good money on a babysitter for the night, an experience anything less than perfect at the theatre is a travesty. And you: the asshole in orchestra row ten with the marimba ringtone? You just made this experience less than perfect. The offended parties will shake their heads in frustration on the sidewalk after the show. It’ll be a topic of conversation with their partner on the drive home. It has irreparably influenced their memory of the night.

So what to do? Confiscate the phones? Impractical. And it seems like theaters ask patrons ad nauseam to silence their phones, yet it hasn’t seemed to fix the problem. Maybe we can wait for technology—the source of our troubles to begin with—to fix the issue, but we may be waiting a long time.

Ultimately, there isn’t much to be done. The bitter pill speaks and proclaims, “This is the current moment in which we live.”

But that doesn’t mean we can’t self-soothe the symptoms of the disease.

I’m a vocal proponent of self-care as a rising cultural value. As such, I ask that you indulge me as I present a few soothing scenarios that imagine a world where assholes meet unreasonable and satisfying repercussions to their actions. Think of these scenarios as a white noise machine or a day at the spa for pissed-off theatre nerds.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Shrike

It’s the middle of previews for a modern revival of The Seagull. Nina, played some new Hollywood ingenue, is doing her thing, being handed dead birds by sad, overbearing men. Then, heard from the mezzanine, is that old Nokia ringtone—you know the one. The Hollywood ingenue stops what she’s doing. There are storm clouds in her eyes. She lifts her arms like a necromancer casting a spell.

“It is time… my birds!”

From the wings (heh) of the theatre, come birds of every size and color. They lock on to the offending party and proceed to pluck out their eyes. An emu runs in from the foyer and crushes the phone with one forceful peck, swinging its powerful neck. The man’s screams are shrill as his eyes become pulp. The actress playing Nina laughs. The audience claps.

“This is better than sitting home at the tee-vee!” one bystander notes.

The Feasting

It’s opening night of Seussical at the community theater in Pleasant Hill, Ohio (pop. 1200). The girl playing Gertrude McFuzz is pretty good, but tonight’s performance by Sour Kangaroo leaves something to be desired. It’s okay, they’ll nail it during the matinee.

Jeanette, the mother of one of the boys playing a Wickersham brother, nearly jumps out of her seat when her phone starts loudly playing “We Didn’t Start the Fire” to an audience of angry patrons. Jeanette throws up her hands in frustration. She knows what comes next.

The ensemble of Seussical stops their dancing to spectate the scene about to unfold. Audience members move their seats back and form a circle with Jeanette in the middle. They point and laugh at her.

“Idiot! Idiot!” they chant, in unison, as is tradition. A single tear rolls down her cheek.

Someone from the crowd steps forward. “It’s time for The Feasting!”

“The Feasting! The Feasting!” the audience chants. Jeanette hangs her head in shame. She knew this was unavoidable.

The man playing the Cat in the Hat approaches her son, one of the Wickersham boys, and lays a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry it had to come to this,” he says. “Your mother loves you very much.”

The Wickersham boy turns his head and stares the Cat square in the eyes. “I have no mother,” he says.

Jeanette takes the cell phone in her hands. She must consume it whole. She slides her Galaxy Note 10 down her esophagus, all the while Billy Joel croons from the speakers, “It was always burning since the world’s been turning…”

“Look away, Billy. For God’s sake, look away!” says the Horton the Elephant. But Billy doesn’t look away. He wants to watch. He wants to see.

The crowd roars. Balance has been restored. The second weekend’s performance of Seussical is recorded in the Pleasant Hill Gazette as a resounding success and critical darling.

A Version of Utopia

Angela’s never been to the theatre before. She had spent her life in rural Idaho with few opportunities to experience live entertainment. That changed on her fourteenth birthday when Angela’s parents took her on a trip to New York City and, subsequently, her first Broadway show.

It was the new Harry Potter play. Angela enjoyed Harry Potter as much as any other adolescent, but she was by no means a superfan. She expected the experience to be interesting, but hollow, like the theme park attractions she experienced in Disneyland. Instead, what Angela saw changed her fundamentally.

Yes, it was only Harry Potter, but there was something about the language that the characters used; something about how their bodies moved in space, the immediacy of the experience that overwhelmed her. She fell in love with the special effects; with the choreography and the costumes. She found herself lost in the story—moved to tears, then to laughter, then to tears again. She had that special kind of experience in the theatre, where you lose sense of yourself completely. “How is this possible?” she thought to herself. “How could something like this be?”

Most of all, Angela loved the lights. She loved their ability to set a mood, to tell a story. She loved their colors, their aesthetics, their spectacle. Hours seemed to have gone by in seconds, uninterrupted. The play ended and Angela and her parents stepped out onto the busy city streets. Angela felt something stir in her soul that, at the time, she didn’t have the words to clearly articulate. She felt she experienced something bigger than her, something ancient. And at this moment, Angela discovered her dream in life. She wanted to be a lighting designer for the next big Broadway show. With every cell in her body, she would strive to make this happen. She would shape her identity in pursuit of this goal and it would guide the course of the rest of her life.

Angela and her parents kept out of the way but under the theater’s marquee as the rest of the patrons spilled out on to the street, their faces glowing. Her dad kneeled down to her level and placed his hand on her shoulder.

“Aren’t you glad we live in a universe where every single person is responsible with their phone and courteous in the theatre? There’s never been one reported incident of a phone going off during a performance, or of somebody forgetting to turn off their camera flash. Isn’t that amazing? I mean, what a horrible thing to happen to someone having an emotional and potentially-transcendent experience, don’t you think? Aren’t you happy a thing like that doesn’t exist?”

Angela was grinning ear-to-ear. She nodded her head and said, “What a nightmare world that would be!” Her face was beaming.

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