Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011


The Richmond theatre community has been abuzz this week in response to a post on Dave Timberline's blog on the subject of texting/tweeting/etc. (hereafter referred to as "texting") by audience members of live theatre events. I was drawn into a continuation of the discussion into the wee hours of last night on, ironically, Twitter. In fact, long after I had put aside my phone (thus proving that it is, in fact, possible to put your phone down and stop typing on the thing), my mind was churning with thoughts on the subject. Finally I concluded that I would darn well have to write a blog post on the subject.

This is what happens when you text in the theater.

As soon as you turn on or open your phone in a darkened theater, the blue light from the screen is visible to every single member of the audience next to or behind you. If you are in the back row, the light reflects off the back and side walls and is perceived in the peripheral vision of audience members in several rows in front of you. Physiological reflex responses cause virtually everyone who sees the light to look at it, which has two effects: 1) their pupil dilation decreases, which blurs their vision and color perception for the next several beats of the play, and 2) whatever emotions they may be feeling in response to the show they are seeing are immediately subsumed by their irritation with you. So your phone has now created a breach in both the visual and emotional connection between performance and audience.
Even if your phone is on silent and is neither seen nor heard, the fact that it is on has several effects. To begin with, no one is 100% effective at remembering to silence their phone; if you habitually refuse to turn your phone off before curtain, as almost all theatres require, the time will come when yours is the phone that rings in the middle of the play. It's a statistical near-certainty, one that can only be remedied by your following the incredibly simple instruction to turn your phone off before curtain.

Your phone doesn't need to be open, active, or even in your hand to disrupt a theatrical performance. It receives texts, calls, and data constantly while it's on, much of it on radio frequencies overlapping those singers use for their wireless microphones, musicians use for digital electronics, and sound engineers use for signal processors. Stage managers communicate using walkie-talkies, and board operators often use remote controls for lighting and video equipment. Have you ever heard funny sounds come through the system while an actor on a mike was talking or singing? Much of that interference is caused by cellular phone signals.

Theatre artists themselves are also strongly affected by your active cell phone and texting. The wonder of theatre, the thing that makes it different from TV, movies, and internet entertainment is the simple fact that the performers are sharing the same space as the audience. Simply put, the actors are as aware of you as you are of them. Stage actors are not your TV. They are trained to perceive audience response and to alter their actions accordingly. Konstantin Stanislavski, the father of modern acting, coined the phrase "dual consciousness" to describe it: actors are simultaneously aware of their environment as characters and as performers. So when that blue light flashes in the audience, actors have exactly the same automatic reflex response as audience members who see it: their eyes dart to the source of the light and their emotions are automatically engaged--usually with extreme irritation. This immediately pulls part of their attention away from their task at hand, which is to create the most honest and engaging performance possible, and to do it for you, gentle texter. And it doesn't matter if you are texting "zomg this show is sooooo great!!!!!1111oneoneone" because the actors can't possibly know that. All they can see is that you have a higher priority right now than paying attention to the performance they are putting their heart and soul into.

Perhaps more importantly, active phones in an audience are a legitimate safety issue for many performers. Dancers and stage combatants often engage in actions involving spotting, i.e. fixing their gaze on a point, turning swiftly, and re-orienting themselves on the same point. A suddenly-appearing new light source in the midst of an otherwise-darkened audience area within a dancer/combatant's field of vision can be an extremely dangerous distraction. Even non-spotting choreography requires focus for safety, focus which is diverted by the appearance of sudden light sources. This is part of why pre-show announcements also include the admonishment that "No flash photography is permitted." The fact that your cell phone is not as bright or sudden as a camera flash makes it only moderately less hazardous.

Last month I saw a show in Richmond wherein an audience member seated in the front row answered a phone call, stood up, and to my complete befuddlement walked into a dark area next to the stage. She stood directly in front of a curtain which had been used earlier in the show as an entrance for actors and set pieces, and engaged in a hushed but clearly audible and visible phone conversation for a full minute before hanging up and sitting down. The audience was flabbergasted; it was all people talked about during the intermission, and we were still discussing it after the show ended. Please understand me clearly when I say this: An audience member reading or sending a text is only marginally less of a disruption for actors and audience than this woman's actions were.

New standards and paradigms for new technology

An argument can be made that society evolves with new technology, with new standards and mores, and that the fact that 80% of Americans text should cause us to adjust our expectations for audience members. Yes, that argument can be made, but it shouldn't, because it's irrelevant.

First of all, the standards have not, in fact, changed at all. I know of no theaters that don't ask their patrons to turn off all cell phones before shows. The phone being on is required for texting, ergo the standards are already in place. If anything, I would suggest that the language we use should express the reality of the situation more clearly, i.e. replacing "Please turn off all cell phones" with "All patrons are required to power off all electronic devices at this time. Silent or airplane modes are not acceptable. All electronic devices must be turned off at this time." No phones on, no texting. Bazinga.

Secondly, it isn't as if theaters are the only place in the western world where texting is considered inappropriate. Just off the top of my head, churches, synagogues, mosques, libraries, movie theaters, doctor's offices, schools, art galleries, government chambers, police stations, and courtrooms all have strict "no cellphone use" policies. Many of them will kick you out or even jail you for disobedience. A theatrical event is just as disrupted by a phone as church or court, and far more than a movie. The expectation is clear and understood by all but the most recalcitrant or inconsiderate.

We make the rules for new technology, the rules don't just default to the low standards of the laziest or most inconsiderate users. New technology doesn't come with ready-made rules and regulations. When the automobile was invented, there were no laws to govern its use. It took years for such issues as which side of the road to use, how to determine right-of-way, and even how to use lights and horns to be determined. Laws weren't written to suit the whims of what drivers wanted, they were written in order to govern safe, responsible use. Smartphones, even standard cellphones, are still very new technology. Now is not the time to cave to the whims of early adopters, it's time to write and codify the standards and protocols by which such devices will be operated. Rule 1: Do not operate your phone while you drive. Rule 2: Do not operate your phone in an environment wherein its use negatively impacts both the observers of a show and the show's performers.

History and future

An argument can be made that the propriety of audience response has changed over the years. In particular, the example of Elizabethan audiences throwing vegetables and talking to the performers has been cited. This is true, but is again largely an irrelevant argument for several reasons: 1) Theatre had only been professional (paid practitioners, paying audiences) for about two decades when Shakespeare started, so audiences were still figuring out how to behave. The fact that the throwing ceased in the decades after it started is similar to audience texting stopping a few years after it started (which it must). In Shakespeare's day, playhouses and five-act drama were the "new technology." 2) The lighting for both actors and audiences was shared in Elizabethan theatre, so audience disruptions didn't create a large visual aberration for performers and audience. 3) The audience expected yelling and throwing, as did the performers, and the actor training was designed to prepare for it. No one in the audience was offended or distracted by a yeller. Theatre doesn't work that way now, and hasn't for centuries. Current theatregoing audiences don't want to see those blue lights any more than the actors do. 4) In some theatre, the American "Chitlin Circuit" and children's theatre for example, there's plenty of yelling at the stage. These forms are designed and prepared for it. They are a very small minority. And texting is rude there, too.

The argument to which I turn the most sympathetic ear is the economic one. Theatres are losing audience members, the subscriber base is almost gone, and we need to find ways to reach out to more potential patrons. This is the tricky one, because I certainly want to reach more people with theatre, and I desperately want people who never thought they would like theatre to fall in love with it. However, I simply can't understand how allowing people to text and tweet in the theatre is at all a solution to this problem.

Audience members aren't staying away from theatre because they ask you to turn your phone off (else they would also be staying away from movies). No one puts on their coat on a Friday night and says "Where can I go tonight that will both entertain me and allow me to send text messages?" I understand the desire to make the theatre more accessible to a new generation, but I draw the line where this perceived "accessibility" comes at the expense of product quality and interferes with other audience members' ability to enjoy the show. The same argument could be extended to smokers, with one exception: unlike texters, many smokers actually will make their evening plans based on whether or not they will be able to smoke at the venue. You want a box office boost? Add a smoking section. And a cigar lounge. And a section for parents with small children. And a bring-your-own dinner section. And a section with the football game playing on a discreetly-placed TV. And a talk-out-loud-to-your-friend-during-the-show section. At least one of those is a million-dollar idea.

Many theatres, our own Richmond Shakespeare included, have experimented with "tweet seats" or social media nights. This is an intriguing idea, so long as the affected seats are in the very back of the theatre, and so long as all patrons are made fully aware of where the distracting blue light will be centered. I'd like to know when these performances are going to be so I can skip the show that night. And I'd like to know which theatres are going to relax their "phones off" policies so I can stop attending their plays.

Theatre is special

Audiences aren't staying away from theatre because they can't text there. Audience members are staying away from theatre because they prefer other, cheaper, less intellectually and emotionally challenging entertainments. I want them in the theatre, make no mistake. But I want them to sit down knowing that what they are about to experience is different, more immediate, more alive. I don't want them to turn off their phones grudgingly, I want them to turn them off because theatre is special, and it is so much better when you apply your full attention to it. Audiences are staying away from theatre because they haven't fallen in love with it. Yet.

There are pages of personal emotional arguments I can make against texting in the audience, arguments regarding how insulting it is as an actor to work for weeks or months crafting a performance, memorizing lines, rehearsing and engaging all of my skills and crafts to create a reality and a connection with my audience, only to have one or more members whip out their phone to update their Facebook status, or to do any number of other activities that can damn well wait for intermission. But those arguments, valid concerns though they may be, pale in comparison to the triumvirate of irrefutably logical reasons texting is and should remain forbidden in theatrical audiences:

1) It distracts other audience members.
2) It diminishes the artistic product.
3) It is potentially dangerous to the performers.

When the audience activity in question creates a decrease in the quality of product, the quality of experience, and the safety of the workers, there is no reasonable compromise or discussion to be had. This is a black and white issue. We don't text in the theatre.


  • At 12/06/2011 11:31 PM , Anonymous Anj said...

    Dave T. has asked us to move on to other topics, so I'll leave mine here.
    When I was house managing, I gave 1 warning to talkers and texters. On the second offense, I would ask them for the phone. If they refused, I told them the phone would be in the lobby or they would.
    As far as groundlings throwing fruit at the stage, I would love for someone to bring me a nice piece of fruit while I'm working. Healthful and refreshing!

  • At 12/07/2011 9:41 AM , Blogger Cynde said...

    Huzzah, Andrew. One note: I'd be curious if the Globe, which encourages a more Elizabethan style interaction from their audiences, also asks them to turn off cell phones.


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