How Broadway Contributed to Its Own Cell Phone Problem

It's great that Lin-Manuel Miranda is publicly shaming folks who use their cell phones. I applauded Patti LuPone doing it during a show. I was in the audience at She Loves Me a few weeks ago when Laura Benanti stopped the show while someone picked up her phone. Applause. This is all great. What confuses me is that producers, theater owners, journalists, etc. are all sharing in this outrage without admitting, even to themselves, they helped create the monster.

In 2007, I wrote a New York Times story on eating in the theater. Ms. LuPone had the beginning and end quote. It was all about how certain theaters were suddenly allowing people to eat snacks at their seats during a show. Many people were outraged. Kevin Spacey went on television and discussed how he had heard this was happening but it would not be happening at his show, A Moon for the Misbegotten. Shubert Organization chairman Gerald Schoenfeld told me he had no plans to ever allow it to happen at his houses. Now, less than 10 years later, a common feature is folks walking up and down the aisle before the show and at intermission selling snacks, as if Broadway is a carnival or a ballpark. At certain shows, such as The Humans, it is not allowed, but most theaters embrace munching. (Schoenfeld is no longer with us and the Shubert Organization is part of this trend.) The Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), owner of Broadway's Lyric Theatre, promotes menus on the back of seats and even has an app you can order from ahead of time. ATG is from London, and snacking at your seats has long been a West End fixture, leading people to wonder why it is more distracting and disturbing here than it is there. To that I only have to say we have a different theater culture.

You may wonder why I'm going on about this -- it is because it helped make the theater less special. You can use your phone at most events in life. You check it at weddings, often even your own wedding. It's disgraceful at funerals, but at wakes people pop out and check it. The theater should be a time to totally disconnect -- not to eat or check your phone. Not only because there are live actors performing for you; I could see some people thinking: "Well, those folks get paid." But because you and everyone else there has invested time and usually money in this experience. You owe it to yourself or at least your fellow audience members to be respectful and allow yourself or at least everyone else to have an enjoyable experience. We live in a civilized society; we need to be aware of those around us.

Except for a while we encouraged those people who weren't respectful of the theater as a temple. Theatre owners started promoting free Wi-Fi. Major Broadway websites posted illegal videos taken inside theaters. Producers retweeted photos taken inside a theater. Selfies. Photos of final moments. Photos of curtain calls. Now those same people -- and I've asked them -- are going to tell you that somehow isn't encouraging using your phone during a show. It's all about promoting the theater. It's small evils so you can share the joy of the theater on social media. Except is that really true? I don't think I've ever used the term "gateway drug" before, but it sort of applies in this case. It is never appropriate, without specific permission, to take photos inside a theater from the audience. The same producers retweeting these photos know that. And yet they've encouraged it. So those same people in the theater taking that curtain call photo then feel it's okay just to put their phone on a little earlier. You know, to prepare. So I'm watching Long Day's Journey Into Night and during Jessica Lange's final speech, someone takes out his phone and, while he is getting ready to try to snap a quick photo (mercifully once she is done), notices he has a message, and of course he needs to check that. Because how could one go another 10 minutes without checking a message you know you have on your phone? I mean, it is staring at you! You know it's there. Then the people who saw that person checking at the end of an act go to another show and think: "Oh, I saw that person checking at the end of Act II the other day and no one seemed to care, so I'll check because I'm expecting something..." These are of course only people who care to begin with, many don't even have that basic decency.

Unfortunately we've all lost a little credibility over the years in terms of combating this. We've all contributed to making theater less special in the name of promotion and the alleged comfort of patrons. I myself admit to watching some of those videos. Oh, and not only does selling candy make theater owners money, they recognize that of course people should be able to have M&Ms because no one can comfortably deal without eating. And we live in the time of email and social media. It's completely important for patrons to be able to check email. Who is it hurting? Forget that the glow it's creating is screwing up the lighting designer's work and distracting the audience members and maybe the actors. There is important stuff going on in the outside world. Forget about the $150 you spent to be there. It's your choice to throw away that. If that phone should happen to ring, so? It's only a second or two or three. Laura Benanti (giving a completely winning performance that just might be one of the best most people will see) doesn't need to finish "Will He Like Me?" in one shot. She'll finish it at the evening performance. The rest of the audience doesn't need to hear the song the full way through the first time. The other audience members get it -- everyone out there has had an emergency. (I've heard some people thought Benanti should have finished the song. Who would that have helped? No one in the audience would have fully enjoyed it. I thought it was the best possible handling of the situation - she was eerily calm. It wasn't like when your boss goes off on you and you don't internalize any of it. It was more like when you're friend says coolly: "Okay. Do what you want." The ability to penetrate one's psyche is so much greater.)

Well, I'm still a geek. I never leave at intermission unless I'm physically ill. I sometimes drink, but only if I feel I'm going to cough unless I do. I go to the theater and, no matter what is going on in my life, I don't check my phone. (I admit to checking the time on a few occasions, and even that I'm angry at myself for.) When my grandmother was sick, I gave away my tickets because I knew I wouldn't be able to sit there and not check my phone. I knew I'd want to know if someone called me, so, rather than have it in my hands even on silent, I didn't go. That was for everyone else -- everyone else who may have been distracted by the light -- but it was also for me. It was for me because when I am distracted by my phone, I am not experiencing the show. Theater is a special gift. People ask me if I go so much that it gets old. The answer is: no. I don't like half of what I see; sometimes I leave and call a friend and say: "That is two hours I will never ever get back." However even during those shows, when my mind wanders, I think: "Theater is such a special gift." Completely dorky, but mostly true. So last night when a neighbor started texting during an intimate reading I attended, all I could do was put my head in my hands in cultural shame. Your time in the theater should be a time when your world stops and you give yourself fully to the performers in front of you and the experience of being there. If you're not willing to do that, or at least attempt to do that, then please don't come.

Update: I should have included a link to Benanti's video with The Skivvies on cell phones in theaters, which was released last summer. I failed to do so. Here you go: