Stage actors say efforts to curb cellphone rings aren't working
In this publicity image released by Stratford Shakespeare Festival, cast, from left, Sara Topham as Gwendolen Fairfax, Ben Carlson as John Worthing, Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell and Sarah Dodd as Miss Prism are shown in a scene from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of, 'The Importance of Being Earnest.'
Published Friday, December 21, 2012 9:31AM EST
TORONTO -- It's become a standard scenario before the curtain opens on a live theatre performance: patrons receive written requests in programs, or oral warnings via the sound system, to turn off cellphones.
Some productions are now going the extra mile in an effort to get audience members to heed the warning, playing clever recorded announcements featuring the talent, or having actors put on a brief skit with a no-cellphone message.
Yet the efforts clearly aren't working, say stage stars, who have little hope the problem will improve in the coming year.
"In the old days when you just had a ring, it wasn't so bad. Now, you're in the middle of this incredibly tense, dangerous moment and you hear dun dun dunnah nannah," says "High" star Kathleen Turner, mimicking a circus-music ringtone.
"Robin Williams told me he was doing the '(Bengal) Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo' and he's in this monologue about God, and this phone went off and it was the theme to 'Deliverance.' He said it took everything in his power not to tell that man what to do with that phone.
"Oh, lord have mercy. It's terrible, it's disruptive, it's awful and I don't understand why people can't just turn them off."
As Megan Hilty of TV's "Smash" puts it, a cellphone going off "is the probably the worst thing that can happen in the theatre."
"It completely takes everyone in the theatre out of the moment and it takes so long to get everybody back," says Hilty, who starred in the musical "Wicked" for five years.
"It seems like such a stupid, silly thing but it is something that completely destroys whatever moment you're creating."
Part of the problem stems from a mentality that "there's some kind of invisible wall" where the actors can't hear/see what the audience is doing, says Annie Potts, whose stage credits include the 2009 Broadway production "God of Carnage."
"Which isn't true at all," she notes. "We're very sensitive to how the audience is breathing, and when a phone goes off, I feel like I've been electrocuted, really."
Liev Schreiber, who's starred in numerous plays, has even heard patrons answering their phones during his performances.
"You'll hear a whole conversation and that's mind-boggling to me, that that can happen," he says.
And it's not just the stage stars who feel the pain.
"It rips the veil you're trying to create," says Robert Harling, who wrote the play "Steel Magnolias."
"As a writer, I'd much rather for the audience to hear my words than your ring tone."
But how to stop the nagging problem?
Some patrons, such as doctors, may need the phone for emergencies so blocking a cellphone signal or issuing a ban on devices in the theatre is "maybe a little dangerous," notes David Mirvish, founder of Mirvish Productions, Canada's largest commercial theatre production company.
"There sometimes is a reason why someone has to have a buzzer or something on their belt and it doesn't have to disturb the audience, it can vibrate. You have to just think positively, I think, here."
Some stage talent have taken it upon themselves to chide audience members when their phones sound off.
Last January, for instance, a cellphone repeatedly went off during a New York Philharmonic concert and music director Alan Gilbert stopped conducting to ask the audience member to turn off the unit.
Turner admits she's "been known to stop and glare" at those whose phones ring for long periods of time.
And venerable thespian Christopher Plummer advises: "The only thing to do, particularly if it's a one-man show, and you're all alone on the stage, so you're not letting down your partner, is to simply say something like -- when it rings -- 'I'll get it.'
"The audiences gives you applause, because they hate it too. The audience loathes that stuff. I just think it's so inconsiderate."
But for the most part, it seems actors just try to ignore them.
"That's all you can do, is you really tune them out," says Schreiber.
"Friends of mine have tried addressing it and pretending to answer it or talking to the audience. Sometimes it's good, but that can also get you in a whole heap of trouble and take you off course."
Hilty says she doesn't blame actors for addressing the problem.
"But I would much rather try and pull people back and kind of distract them and say, 'Hey, remember why we're all here!' instead of completely stopping everything in its tracks to punish one person."
Of course, it's not just a cellphone ring, but also the glow of the smartphone screen, that can disturb the production.
Still, some theatres and productions are embracing smartphones -- albeit in a limited, controlled and non-disruptive manner -- in an effort to entice younger, social media-loving patrons.
Earlier this year, a Broadway revival of "Godspell" allowed a few secluded "tweet seats" for those who wanted to put out relevant messages throughout the performance.
The Public Theater in New York and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra are among the other venues that have also tried the same thing. The latter has even had musicologists go on Twitter during performances to answer questions and provide context on the show to tweet seaters.
Meanwhile, the Palm Beach Opera in Florida offers tweet seats for the final dress rehearsals of operas. The initiative has been "really popular" and a great way to engage younger/new patrons, says Ceci Dadisman, the company's director of marketing and PR.
"I would probably say 99 per cent of the people that come to tweet seats have never been to opera before, and it was the tweet seats opportunity that attracted them to go,"' says Dadisman.
"I definitely think it's a first step. Maybe at some point we will have people tweeting in the regular theatre."
In Bellevue, Wash., permits have just been issued for the construction of the state-of-the-art Tateuchi Center, a 2,000-seat performing arts facility that will have Wi-Fi access everywhere and plans to allow the use of smartphones in some capacity during shows.
"If you can make that device not be disturbing to the other people around you, then why would anyone object to its use?" says executive director John Haynes, who initially designed the building thinking of the needs of tech-loving commercial clients wanting to use it for meetings (Microsoft headquarters is about six kilometres away from the building site).
"In other words, if you can't see it and you can't hear it, why would you object to it? And I think eventually that's going to happen. I think it's already. Clearly it's already possible to silence the device, it's possible to dim the device.
"I think that with polarizing screens, for example, it is also possible not just to dim the device but to make sure that the light emanates only to the user and not to either side or beyond the user."
Mirvish Productions has the opposite mentality: it will "Never, never, never" introduce tweet seats, says communications director John Karastamatis.
"Tweet seats is the most nonsensical concept since the invention of modern technology," he says.
"The theatre is all about a communal experience between all the people in one space at one time: between performers and audience members, and between audience members with each other. Tweeting is all about stepping outside that communal experience and commenting on it while it is happening. You are no longer participating; you aren't even a spectator."
But Haynes notes the current model for the delivery of high culture -- dressing up and sitting still quietly for two hours absorbing a show -- isn't one that resonates with younger patrons.
Younger generations want to curate their own experience and be interactively engaged with what's going on, and they often do that through their handheld devices, he says.
"I think it's inevitable that people are going to use them, they carry them, and it seemed to me that the question was, 'How do use them to your benefit? How do you expand and improve the individual experience of an artistic event by using that device?' And I think we can do it.
"The time will come when we can do it, and I don't know what the dimensions of it will be, but I know that I wired my building in anticipation of being able to do it."
Haynes isn't worried his plan to embrace smartphones in the venue will deter talent from wanting to perform there, noting "They also live in a commercial world.
"There are realities they have to adapt to as well, as touring artists, and I think if you provide a really great and supportive experience, if you're giving them bigger and more engaged audiences, if you are expanding possibility for young people to come and enjoy classical music or classical singers or whatever it might be ... what artist wouldn't like that?"
But he adds: "I think if the damn phone rings while they're trying to sing, they have every right to be annoyed. They really do."