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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