The phone must go on? No, it’s the show, so turn it off

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 6, 2016

By Susan Shinn

For The Salisbury Post

If you’ve spent an evening out recently, you’ve had these experiences … There’s a pivotal moment in a play — and someone’s cellphone rings. Or the symphony is performing and there’s a quiet passage in the music —and you hear the tinkling tones of a text message.

On local and national stages, performers are increasingly frustrated by patrons who use cellphones during performances.

The legendary Broadway actress Patti LuPone last summer made headlines when she grabbed the cellphone of a patron while exiting the stage. LuPone told national media she’s giving serious thought whether to continue on the stage because of such rudeness.

It’s an occasional problem at local venues as well.

“It’s been a challenge,” admits Justin Dionne, managing artistic director for Lee Street Theatre.

Dionne grew up with a cellphone, and says that when he goes into a performance or meeting, he automatically places his cellphone on silent mode. “My generation is one of the first generations to think of cellphones as commonplace.”

He says of silencing his phone, “I just do it. It’s just wired into my being.”

Dionne says that the few times a cellphone does go off, it’s one that belongs to an older patron.

It’s also easy to patrol texting at Lee Street.

“People get busted because our space is so small,” Dionne says. “You don’t have a balcony to hide in. If someone’s on a cellphone in our space, it’s obvious.”

Dionne and his staff kindly remind patrons to silence cellphones at the beginning of each performance.

“A show does not start without a person stepping out in front of you and asking you to do this,” he says. “We sometimes ask patrons to turn off cellphones, because they can interfere with our wireless microphones.”

Dionne says that each and every venue struggles with cellphone use.

“This is not our number-one challenge,” he says, “but you’d be surprised how often it happens. And nothing makes me more frustrated in a performance as when a cellphone goes off. There are moments in plays that are built around silence. You have to have that. If all of a sudden a cellphone goes off in the middle of that? Ruined. Moment gone.”

At Piedmont Players Theatre, director Reid Leonard takes a lighthearted approach when reminding patrons to silence cellphones.

During the theater’s elevator campaign, Kent Bernhardt recorded a message that played at the beginning of every performance, thanking patrons whose cellphones went off for a $100 donation to the elevator fund.

“The big thing right now is that people can’t go for an hour without checking messages or texting,” Leonard says. “Their phone lights up, and it’s distracting for the people behind them. It’s no longer as much the sound of the phone, it’s the light of the phone. It also distracts the actors. These are live actors on stage, and they can see what’s going on.”

Flash photography has never been allowed because of this, Leonard says, and the emphasis is now on cellphone usage.

“Every two or three shows, we have to send in our house manager to the audience to see whose phone is lit up,” he says. “It’s not people being malicious. It’s just people not thinking about it.”

Leonard says he turns off his cellphone when he goes to rehearsals. “I’ll look at it when I finish.”

Maestro David Hagy says he doesn’t have too many problems with cellphones during Salisbury Symphony performances.

He does admit that his cellphone went off once while he was at a Broadway show.

“I was absolutely horrified,” he says. “So I know accidents can happen.”

A dear friend who’s in her mid-50s had her phone go off at a recent public event. She’d turned off her ringer, but since it was a new phone, she didn’t realize the volume on her apps was still on. She mistakenly activated an app for live radio, and the song on the radio began to play on her phone — loudly.

She was understandably mortified.

“It was loud!” she says. “I ran out of there!”

She has since learned how to silence her phone completely, she notes.

Hagy says that he also realizes that modern audiences are not trained as much in music appreciation as those in past generations.

Still, he says, “I’m a little more open-minded to a section for technology use, as long as there’s no noise.

There could be, for example, some rows in the back of the auditorium where people could use technology if so inclined.

He envisions text between patrons to the effect of, “Aren’t they playing beautifully?” or “Oh my, that English horn player is horrible tonight!”

“In certain cases,” he adds, “a cellphone can be a way of eliminating distractions. I want no sound. In any concert, there should be no sound. You could sit somewhere where you’re not obviously distracting people with what your doing.”

Those back rows he mentioned earlier, for example.

“Then if you wanted to look up something about the concert or a piece of music, you could,” he says.

Hagy admits that he has a short attention span, and it’s hard for him to sit still.

“It’s difficult for me to focus on anything without multitasking,” he says. “That’s why I’m sympathetic to people who want to do this. I’m always aware of impacting others who are near. I do think we need a section for people who want to study the play or composition.”

Still, Hagy says, silence is golden — and essential to any performance.

We thank you for your attention to cellphone etiquette — now enjoy the show!


Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.

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