I’m Sorry, Did My Play Interrupt Your News Feed?

I work in theatre.

An institution that dates back to the Greeks. Storytelling at its most basic form. Folks in a room who tell a story. Other folks in the room who are there to listen.

So I guess I get it if it feels a little dated.

We live in a culture now through which the entirety of human knowledge can be accessed on a superpowerful glowing orb approximately four inches long that lives in our pockets and handbags and is usually pretty resilient when dropped. That’s fucking incredible. It’s hard not to care about that.

I’ll confess to being ‘that guy’ with my phone more often than I’d like to admit. The lure of the buzz in my pocket during a coffee date with a friend. The stolen peek, just checking the time, when I know I should be paying attention in a meeting. The desire to click that hilarious link while walking down the street. I’ve had a smartphone for a little over six months now, and I totally, totally get it. The world is literally at my fingertips and that shit is addicting. So yeah. I get it.

That being said.

My friend Dan gives a really great curtain speech. Do you guys know what a curtain speech is? It’s the speech before a play begins. You know the one. Hey, folks, thank you so much for coming! We’d like to thank our opening night sponsors, the catering company and the local brewpub that donated the beer. Join us this Thursday for our special talkback event, and make sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Now sit back and enjoy the show!

When Dan gets up there, he does all that stuff, but then he throws in his own bit, when he talks about cell phones. I’m paraphrasing, but it’s essentially:

“This is the part where we ask you to turn off your cell phones. If at all possible, not to set them to vibrate or to airplane mode. To actually turn them off.” He then looks at the audience, finds an audience member or two, makes eye contact. “You know, I’d like to thank you for being here. Really. Because you could be at home watching the game, or streaming Netflix, or at the movies. You could be any number of other places tonight, but you’ve chosen to be here. You are here, in this room, experiencing a story in real time with real people, rather than experiencing the world through a screen, and that feels meaningful. So thank you for being here with us tonight.”

I like this speech because it’s about more than just the fundamentals. Don’t get me wrong, the practical reasons abound: ringtones ruining important moments, buzzing and vibrating interfering with microphones, actors distracted when faces are illuminated by glowing screens in the dark. That’s all true, but it’s ultimately about more than that. It’s about connection.

In our world in which we simply cannot or do not focus in the same ways as we once did, it’s an incredibly simple form of respect. To shut the outside world away for a few hours and experience something real, in real time, with real people, in a real place.

Tonight I sat in the audience at a preview performance of a play here in Philadelphia. I’d like to say that I love all the plays I design equally, but that is simply not the case. I’ve worked on real pieces of crap before. This is not one of those plays. This one feels meaningful and powerful and engaging and important.

I wish I could say that I was as engrossed and engaged in the work as I was yesterday, or the day before. I wasn’t. I was watching the glowing screen of the iphone of the man seated in front of me.

Facebook. Google. Wikipedia.

On the stage, actors made the rest of the audience laugh, and later gasp, in surprising and unexpected ways. This play deals with race relations and with youthful hubris. It’s a beautiful work.  I recommend it highly.

I didn’t really catch a lot of it, though, because I was looking at how nice that instagrammed salmon dinner looked under the ‘Valencia’ filter.

I’m sure a lot of you are now picturing your quintessential millennial slacker, piercings and tattoos, probably snuck a PBR in under his coat. That would almost make sense to me. This dude was in his sixties or seventies. He was wearing a turtleneck. He looked like Wilford Brimley.  This is not a disease exclusively limited to my generation, friends.

Look, I get it. I do. It’s a hard itch not to scratch. I’m guilty of it too: in line at the checkout counter, or stuck in endless gridlock, or at a really boring event. I’m guilty of it. We all are.

But I’m not going to check my newsfeed during Christmas Day while my mom opens presents. When my friend is pouring out her heart to me over drinks, I don’t care if someone commented on my Facebook status. And I most definitely do not give a shit about my newest Twitter follower if my phone buzzes while I’m having sex.

There are some places that still require you to be in the room with real people, in real time, in a real place. The theatre, I think, is one of ‘em.

So for the love of everyone around you. Thank you so much for coming. Now please, turn off your fucking phone and enjoy the show.

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21 thoughts on “I’m Sorry, Did My Play Interrupt Your News Feed?

  1. Yes! Yes! Yes!. So nice to see someone addressing the lack of respect/common courtesy some people show to both those on stage and to the people around them. My other comment would be regarding babies – but that would be opening another can of worms…

  2. Katharine, why didn’t you politely whisper to the man: “Please turn off your cell phone since the glowing screen is a distraction to those around you?” If he refused, you could have whispered: “Sir, as someone associated with this play, I’m going to have to insist on your turning off your cell phone or ask you to leave.” I’m sure you would have gotten support from those around you. Some people just don’t realize how annoying this is and think they’re shielding the screen in a sufficient manner. Those people would have looked contrite and turned off their phones immediately. Other people are jerks and just don’t care. Why should one person ruin the play for everyone around him? This is my number one pet peeve at just about any public gathering and I refuse to let inconsiderate morons ruin my theater/dance/music/movie/lecture experience.

  3. Perhaps even worse than the actual disturbance during live performances is that I, for one, now expect that it will happen, 100% of the time. Not some or most of the time. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

    And that makes me much less interested in seeing live shows, spending money to hear the iPhone ‘plinkety-plink-da-plink!” throughout a performance. Yep, that sucks for the theater world that now gets less support from someone like me because I really do see the value of live theater and BEING there.

    What’s the solution? I guess at some point theaters have become absolutely draconian and have ushers forcibly remove people using phones during the show, or force people to give their phones up as they enter. Once someone sees someone else get dragged down the aisle by a bouncer I bet they think twice before Instagramming. But this is unlikely and even if 10 or 15% of people would love this to happen, the other 85% will see this as an outrageous infringement of their right to live in their little digital bubble of inconsiderateness. (“But I’m meeting a friend after the show and have to text her!”

    Katherine, I feel your pain. And I’m sad that my ‘solution’ is to just avoid the theater unless I think that missing the show will cause a serious detriment to my life. But that’s the truth. Theaters have to start getting medieval on folks’ asses. It shouldn’t be my job as a paying audience member to confront and discipline people.

    Good post.

  4. I love the balance in this post. “Yes, it’s super fucking cool to have essentially unlimited knowledge and connection any time, anywhere.” “But, maximum usage does not equal maximum benefit.” I grew up doing concerts and dance performances, and OIY was I trained in performer/audience etiquette. If you were onstage, you did your piece and otherwise shut the fuck up and stayed as still as possible so as to not detract from those who were performing. As an audience member, you also shut the fuck up and stayed as still as possible, except for appropriate ooh’s and ah’s and gasps and giggles. But you did not carry on your own conversation, call, text, or any other such nonsense. The only exception was if your child was under the age of five and being adorable as all get out on stage; then you were allowed to whip out your camera and snap as many shots as possible of the little dumpling from the aisle that you climbed over half a row of people to go stand in. That was acceptable.

    But anything other than that, and performers/audience members put themselves at risk of my attempting to murder them by withering them with my gaze. Just sayin’.

  5. This is a fairly common theme these days from comedians to psychologists and yes, even costume designers…this plea for us to detach from our phones and reattach to life. If even for a little while.
    I’m all for it. If you can get just one person to consider turning off their phone and respecting the moment they’re in by being attentive then that is a victory. One for the good guys!

    I agree with REB though, when somebody’s ignorance is encroaching upon my enjoyment I have no qualms about politely requesting that they stop, or leave if they can’t.
    Fuck worrying about confrontation, I’m not accepting this kind of self centred behaviour when it starts to affect my right to enjoy a moment.
    But that’s me.
    I can understand how hard that can be for others, so hopefully minds can be reached and behaviours can be changed by articles like yours.

  6. One of the more brilliant minds of the 20th/21st centuries on the same topic, only he focuses on presence in communication with the self rather than with the external world:

  7. Bravo, Katherine! I couldn’t agree more!

    Several years ago my daughter attended a prominent dance school. The night of the final performance, the school’s director gave a curtain speech to the audience ( who were mostly parents.) She reminded us that our children had worked long and hard for this night. Put away your phones and cameras and video recorders, she pleaded, don’t filter the performance through a lens. Watch the stage; give the dancers your complete attention. It’s not just that your camera might distract a performer or another audience member. Art requires your engagement. As artists, the quality of the dancers’ performance will depend on their ability to connect with the audience. Don’t cheat them of that opportunity, she asked. Don’t cheat yourself.

  8. I will say one thing. I used to turn my phone off. Now I put it on vibrate. What changed? I had a little boy. He is precious to me, but he all to often (outdoor shows excepted) is not welcome at the theatre. If his sitter has an emergency, I want to know. It will probably never happen, but if I couldn’t have my hand on the phone to feel for the vibration just in case, I wouldn’t be able to be fully present at the show, I would be too distracted being a new mom. Maybe when he’s a little older I’ll be able to turn off the phone again. Until then, I’ll take my security blanket.

    • I too have a precious child. I leave the theatre phone number with the sitter and let the house manager know my name and seat number so that I may be notified in case of emergency. That is in the job description of the house manager–to assist the audience in fully enjoying their theatre-going experience. Phone goes off at curtain speech, on at intermission, off at lights down and on at end of show. I am fully engaged and fully available…and not freaking out if I feel a buzz that turns out to be a friend wanting to meet for coffee next week.

  9. This post would be well complimented by this video. I don’t have a smartphone, and I have felt the way this girl feels so many times.

  10. I am a Stage Manager and a “millennial” and not an intermission goes by where I don’t see a wave of glowing screens come over the audience for the 10 minutes they wouldn’t be considered a total ass if they took out their phones. It’s gross, it literally makes me sick. When I go to a show, I make a point to
    a. stretch my knees (I have really bad knees) and
    b. engage with the person who was nice enough to let me drag them out to my latest interest.

    It’s sad that peoples attention spans can’t make it past Act One, even if you are checking in at the theatre or some other cyber bullshit, couldn’t it wait until you got home?

    You might think “oh, it’s not rude, the performers are back stage, they can’t even see me.” But the SM can, and they write the audience’s reaction in the report every night.

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