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Actor Andrew Blair remembers the first time a member of the audience distracted him; the man, sitting in the front row, “looked like Santa Claus and he was snoring like a chainsaw.” Blair recalls another theatregoer practically shouting on his cell phone “I’m sorry, I can’t talk right now, I’m at the theatre.”

But, while the actor had to work to keep focused, neither distraction outraged him. “That guy needed a nap,” he says of the snoring Santa. And the cell phone user? “The audiences come from a digital age and their cell phones are practically an extension of their body,” he says, “so I understand they are going to use it.” “The fun of performing,” Blair believes, “comes from the unpredictability of the audience, including distractions.”

INTAR's Judgement of Fools. Andre Blair, far right. Photo by audience member. 

Blair portrays the lead Fool in a play entitled Judgment of Fools, to be presented the second Thursday of every month at INTAR Theatre. The play begins with an off-stage voice saying:

Ladies and Gentlemen welcome to INTAR. On the left side you will see a power strip. Feel free to charge your phone. Also don’t turn it off. What if an important call comes through, or what if the play is boring… maybe you’re going to want to Tinder instead?

“I Am So Defeated By This Issue”
The two biggest New York theatre stories over the summer were the success of Hamilton, and the outrage against cell phone users.

The attempt by nineteen-year-old Long Island college student Nick Silvestri to charge his cell phone in a fake electrical outlet on the set of Hand to God before a performance in July drew so much indignation on social media and attention in the regular press that he held a well-attended press conference to apologize. His action most memorably prompted Hand to God set designer Beowulf Boritt to remark: “It’ll keep me from ever putting a toilet on stage.”

Nick Silvestri at  the press conference. 

Shortly afterwards, Patti LuPone snatched a phone from a theatregoer who was texting during her performance of Shows For Days, later releasing a statement: “I am so defeated by this issue that I seriously question whether I want to work onstage anymore.” (Although she claims to be a reluctant “policeman of the audience,” it’s a role for which she is especially known. In An Act of God, Jim Parsons heckled latecomers: “You’re lucky I’m God and not Patti LuPone.”)

Then in August, Benedict Cumberbatch more politely admonished audiences at his Hamlet in London, who were using their cell phones to snap photographs of him: “I could see a red light in the third row on the right, and it’s mortifying.”

Audience members and theatre management have been “mortified” about cell phone use for years now, some ascribing it to a momentous shift in the culture or in society—a breakdown of manners or even morals, the noxious influence of new technology, etc.—some just grumbling at the latest affront.

But I don’t remember such public complaints by prominent performers before this summer, and it feels like an escalation. Judgment of Fools was not the only show to take advantage of the phone fury to garner attention for their contrary attitude. The Hive publicly invited Nick Silvestri to attend its production of Chatroom by Enda Walsh, which not only encouraged theatregoers to keep their phones on, but required it: The audience was texted dialogue and a video during the performance.

In show after show this summer, I heard some variation of the audience announcement by director Jonathan Foster before thicket & thistle’s musical What’s Your Wish: “During the show, you can have your phones out and take pictures.”

What's Your Wish by thicket & thistle. Photo by  Ellen Bryan.

What’s Your Wish was free and outdoors, presented in a community garden on Avenue B in the East Village by a young theatre company as one of the productions in the New York International Fringe Festival’s “Al Fresco” series.  Attending several of these site-specific shows, as well as various presentations of Shakespeare in parks and parking lots, I was struck by how many distractions the actors had to put up with. In Above Us, a two-character play about life in New York, which took place high above the city on the roof of a building on Delancey Street, the noise (apparently from a street-level party) felt like an uninvited third character.

What's Your Wish by thicket & thistle. Photo by Sarah George. 

The Seattle-based physical theatre company UMO Ensemble, which performed Fail Better (featuring text by Samuel Beckett) in the parking lot behind the Clemente Soto Vélez  Cultural and Educational Center on the Lower East Side, had to rent head phones for the audience because they didn’t have an outdoor permit for their recorded sound scape. They then had to compete with the shrieking sirens of passing fire engines.

UMO's Fail Better. Photo by Jonathan Mandell. 

In the middle of a preview performance of Stalker: The Musical in the Avenue B community garden, a would-be theatregoer took a seat carrying a huge brightly colored easel and several awkwardly-packed bags, started talking and clapping halfway through a musical number, and shook the hand of each (stunned) performer, before proclaiming loudly “I’m really into theatre. I’m sorry I have to run, God bless you all,” and leaving less than ten minutes after he arrived.

Given such challenges—and wildlife, insects, ninety-degree heat, and rain—the international animus over cell phone use (call it phone rage) seems a silly over-reaction.

Class Conflict Or Generational Divide?
Of course, the type of shows in which Patti LuPone and Benedict Cumberbatch perform—and that generate the most etiquette-based outcry—are not outdoors, and far from free. Some people indeed have speculated that the escalation of complaints is at least in part a direct result of the escalation of ticket prices. Is this then a class issue?

“It’s generational,” replies Corley Pillsbury, of thicket & thistle, all of whose members are in their twenties. “Our generation realizes we can’t fight it.”

“Adapt or die,” adds fellow thicket & thistle-r Joshua Stenseth. “There’s no reason to shame a theatregoer for using their cell phone.”

I resisted an explanation that relied wholly on the age of the audience or actors, and was happy to see that The Guardian’s astute critic Lyn Gardner was also troubled by the phone rage of the art police (“Bring the noise: live theatre needn't be watched in respectful silence”)—and that, like me, she came to her view after attending Fringe shows (in her case the Edinburgh Fringe). In her piece, she points to a “conundrum” facing the theatre:

…on one hand it is desperate to increase diversity and get more people to give it a try, rather than thinking that it’s not for the likes of them, and on the other hand it gets really narked when people who buy theatre tickets don’t know the rules about how you’re expected to behave. Those who do know aren’t better people. They’ve just been lucky enough to have been brought up in theatre-going families, or discovered theatre through friends or their education.

Such an understanding attitude is sure to irk theatregoers with horrendous stories to tell. Even Andrew Blair seems less tolerant when in the audience than on the stage. He bristled when somebody chose the middle of a movie to try out various ringtones on his cell phone, and, when asked to stop, replied: I paid my money to be here just like you did.

“As an audience member, I want to see the show,” Blair admits. “As a performer, though, I know that these distractions are inevitable.”

Etiquette, Then and Now
A recent survey conducted by ticket seller Goldstar lists the top three complaints by theatregoers against their fellow theatregoers as:

  1. Talking
  2. Cell phone use
  3. Late arrivals

I’ll admit to having been annoyed at one time or another by all three, as well as behavior further down the list, such as armrest hogs and early departures (by people in the middle of the aisle). The most irritating theatregoers I’ve ever encountered, however, were not breaking the rules of theatrical etiquette but (in their minds anyway) enforcing them. “You’re not going to be eating during the show, are you?” a woman said harshly to me, glaring from the row in front of mine. It was about twenty minutes before the curtain went up, and I arrived at the theatre finishing off an apple—my dinner, thanks to a late ending matinee.

Goldstar survey results. 

It’s worth noting that the rules of theatre etiquette (as known to the lucky and the educated) are a relatively modern invention. Do you think Shakespeare made an announcement before A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Please put away your rotten fruit and close your vocal chords until the end of the show. Audiences were expected to jeer during Ancient Greek plays, and they rioted in Georgian-era London; in the infamous Old-Price Riots of 1809, theatregoers violently protested for three months when ticket prices were raised by a shilling.

The importance of manners in the theatre seems to have increased as theatre’s status as a mass entertainment decreased. 

In an effort to reverse the second of those trajectories, theatres seem almost desperate to lure in the now rare demographic represented by Nick Silvestri, the Lacrosse-playing college student, a male teenager. (According to the latest statistics from the Broadway League, 68 percent of Broadway theatregoers are female, and the average age of the audience is forty-four.) Silvestri, in the city with family and friends, purposely sought out Hand to God ("...we heard this play was supposed to be funny," he told Playbill).

And yet here he was, in front of a bank of microphones set up outside the Booth Theatre, forced to apologize: “ I don’t go to plays very much, and I didn’t realize that the stage is considered off limits. I’ve learned a lot about the theatre in the past few days—theatre people are really passionate and have been very willing to educate me,” he said, his body language surely explaining the phone-charging incident better than his words: He read the statement without looking up, as if in the dean’s office, but he seemed to be smirking at times, and he never stopped chewing gum. Silvestri made a vow: “I can assure you that I won’t be setting foot on a stage ever again, unless I decide to become an actor.” At which point, he can start complaining about the audience.

Jonathan Mandell’s NewCrit piece usually appears the first Thursday of every month. Find his previous pieces here.