Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Throw the (Phone) Bums Out

I came across this article the other day. One like many in our digital age, discussing the problem of distracting cell phone usage by audience members of theatrical productions. It certainly is one of the most common, and most annoying problems in theatre today. Or for that matter in any function that requires some kind of quiet decorum. Cell phones and tablets are now everywhere, even where they should not be. As indicated in the article, there is much hand wringing about what to do about this.

Some theaters, such as this one, have experimented with "Tweet Seats". Special seating for those who agree to tweet about the performance with specific hashtags. Though I think that's a bit silly in some ways, I can see the value in it in others. Promotion is promotion after all, so long as it's not interfering with the performance. But "Tweet Seats" only work for those who respect their boundaries. If boundaries were respected in the digital age, the entire cell phone/tablet flap would not exist. People would, as asked numerous times before the start of a show, shut off their cell phones, so as not to interrupt performances.

Yet a percentage of people in each audience these days refuse to do so. Not only that, they get belligerent when it is pointed out to them. Then other patrons who are playing by the rules cower, and huff as their theatrical experience is lessened.

My question is, why are theaters not throwing such people out?

Be indignant if you must, worshipers of instant communication. Pontificate once again on the supposed need your life has to be reached instantly and to reach everyone else instantly. Bloviate a little more about "personal freedom." You'll not sway me on this issue. So I say again, as an actor and a patron of theatre; If you are a repeat offender with your cell phone or tablet, and degrade the experience of the performance through use of your devices, you should be thrown out. No refund either.

Look, I know that in some ways theatre seems archaic. In some ways, perhaps it is, and I am in favor of modernizing it to a certain extent. But there is a far cry between modernizing an institution, and letting it be subsumed into the mores of an emerging digital culture that sometimes seems to bend over backwards to leave it behind or destroy it. I'd honestly rather have smaller audiences that are respectful of the performance, than larger audiences filled with people who can only bothered to attend theater because someone dragged them to it, or because they see it as a chance to catch up on texts, tweets, or whatever the latest app-based smart phone game happens to be. At least the smaller crowd is there because it wants to be. The larger crowd, in my scenario, is there because they can be, and speaking as an actor, I don't feel excited or honored by such a presence.

It's quite simple, really. What I'm advocating is not without precedent, even within the theatre. If someone is heckling a show, they can be asked to leave, and forced to do so, should it come to that. Plenty of theatres do not allow the personal freedom of eating or drinking in the house, and none of them in the United States allow the personal freedom of smoking in the seats anymore. (As far as I understand.) These rules have caused grumblings in the past and continue to do so. And a certain portion of the would-be audience vowed never to return to the theatre, given these restrictions. So they did. Theater survived, and a little bit better off, in my opinion.

We have commuter trains, such as Maryland's own MARC system, that provide "Quiet Cars" for the morning commute. No loud talking on cellphones, no shouting, no music without headphones. From what I've been given to understand, the quiet on such cars is enforced on a regular basis, both by train staff, and by the culture that has grown up within such cars. People go to them because they expect quiet, and those that cannot comply are quasi-shamed out of selecting the car in the future. That's what we need in theaters regarding cell phones: more shame.

If proprietors of theaters were to adopt a low or even zero tolerance policy for such behavior, eventually so would patrons. The theater would be seen as a place once again where a quiet respect both for what is happening on stage and for those who paid to enjoy what is happening on stage would take root. People with cell phones glued to their heads at all times would him and haw, give a few speeches and write a few letters about their personal freedoms. Then they would just stop coming to the theatre altogether, not being that worried about it in the first place, I dare say. Or they would leave their cell phones in the car, if theatre truly did mean that much to them. In either case, no big loss for the theatre.

Theater attendance, especially at the regional and community level, is down. Some studies indicate that participation of and appreciation for the arts in general in the United States is falling. If so, it is a tragedy for several reasons, not the least of which being that arts organizations are closing due to lack of income. But even in the current fragile state of affairs within the arts community, we mustn't allow ourselves to cater to every possible element that might attend a show. I implore theaters and other arts institutions not to be so desperate for the money a ticket brings as to allow buffoons who barely care about what they've come to see to dilute the experience. We can adjust without surrendering, adapt without capitulating. We owe it to actors, directors, patrons and donors, indeed to the thousands year tradition of Western Theater itself to maintain decorum and etiquette within our walls. We must stem the tide of digital encroachment for the sake of encroachment. If we don't demand it, nobody else will do so on our behalf.

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