Does the Audience Need an Outlet?
On smartphones, LuPones, and unanticipated interactivity.
I don't know if this actually happened, though I've been assured it did. Back in the ancient time when cellphones were still clamshells, an excellent actor whom I'll call T. was performing a one-character play, with a densely written and extremely convoluted text, in a small downtown theater that required him to work at close quarters with the audience. At one performance, the cellphone of a woman in the front row rang and she answered it. T. reached down, took the phone away from her, and said into it, "She can't talk to you now, she's watching a play." He then snapped the phone shut and tossed it to the house manager, receiving a hearty round of applause from the rest of the audience.
Like everyone else who works in and/or frequently attends the theater, I hope that story's true. (I wasn't at the performance in question. T. is a friend, but I haven't been able to reach him for verification.) Cellphones and similar portable electronic devices have become one of the chief banes of the performing arts in our time. Quasi-vaudevillian shows that employ a lot of performer-audience interaction have managed to integrate the noisy little creatures into their routines to some extent, as I gather Penn & Teller are currently doing, but the vast majority of those involved in live performance feel as irate about these infuriating oblongs as Patti LuPone or the Hand to God company.
Ms. LuPone, who's playing a high-energy role in Shows for Days at Lincoln Center, made headlines earlier this month when she removed a cellphone from the hands of a busily scrolling patron. Some days earlier, Steven Boyer and his colleagues in Hand to God at the Booth, while about to go onstage for the top of the show, found themselves watching, agog, while a teenage audience member leapt onto Beowulf Boritt's church-basement set and attempted to power up his cellphone by plugging its charger into an onstage electrical outlet (which, like most electrical things on stage sets, was a nonworking simulation).
These incidents at least provoked fun, where most cellphone interruptions cause only annoyance. The PR staffs for the two shows got a good workout in the media — the youngster in the Hand to God incident was put up to read a statement, clearly drafted with outside assistance, apologizing to the company and urging everybody to come see a Broadway show — and the jokes, as well as the expostulations of anger about the two incidents have continued to reverberate through the larger argument about whether people should carry on their electronic private lives in public places. Steven Boyer, who plays the troubled kid wielding the Satanic sock puppet in Hand to God, posted on his Facebook page that, if there were any attempt at a repeat performance, the role of the cellphone charger would be played by his foot and the role of the outlet by the intruder's behind, while the show's set designer, Beowulf Boritt, not only got to expatiate in interviews on the art of making objects on a stage set look real, but briefly replaced his profile photograph on Facebook with a puckish image of himself sporting an empty outlet plate in front of his eyes like a mask.
Yes, the collision of old and new cultural patterns can bring amusement. But just under the laughter, there's a persistent residue of anger that spells trouble. As far as I know, no one in the audience at a live performance has been killed yet for keeping a cellphone on — the one occurrence of that kind was at a movie theater in Florida, and hence two degrees removed from reality — but I feel sure that, as Gilbert & Sullivan said about capitalism becoming Britain's governmental system, "We haven't come to that exactly, but we're heading rapidly in that direction."
A scene that I did witness, early in the history of theaters vs. cellphones, still sends a shiver up my spine. It happened back in 1999, when Roundabout Theatre Company was housed in a modest upstairs space, now vanished, called the Criterion Center. The occasion was a fairly snoozy revival of James Goldman's The Lion in Winter, and I, like most of those who'd seen the original production, was waiting for the big final showdown between estranged royal husband and wife — being played by Laurence Fishburne and Stockard Channing — to get some emotional fireworks going at last.
Standing fairly far upstage, the duo had just started to turn up the emotional heat when a cellphone, house right, began to ring, very loudly. Channing and Fishburne froze, waiting for it to be shut off. But its owner (male, as it happens) apparently didn't know how to do that. It kept on ringing, loudly and insistently. Seated fairly far back in the center of the steeply raked auditorium, I was able to watch while the phone's owner, having failed to find the power-off button, was literally hounded and pounded out of his seat and down the row, past a gauntlet of infuriated theatergoers, till he finally escaped to the aisle and ran like a madman for the exit door, his ringtone still resounding.
And just as he cracked the house door and hurtled into the lobby, Fishburne, who could apparently stand the noise no longer, broke from his freeze and marched downstage to announce, "Would you kindly turn that f*cking thing off? Thank you." He got a huge hand, after which he and Channing went back into position and tried to pick up the broken thread of the scene. They didn't do badly, but it was a lost cause: The cellphone had both stolen and ruined the show.
I stress the anger of the people sitting around the guy with the noisemaker in his pocket. If they didn't actually attack him physically — hard to tell for sure in the darkened house — they seemed to me, from their vociferous reactions, pretty clearly on the verge of violence. After that night, I stopped being surprised by the fury an interruptive mobile device can arouse in audiences. I suspect the unfortunate perpetrator of the uproar either went home and practiced turning his cellphone on and off for the next eight hours, or never ventured into a live theater again. But I'll have more to say about cellphones, and the reactions that attempts to control them arouse, next week.
Stay tuned to TheaterMania for part II of this "Thinking About Theater" column, which will appear on Friday, July 31.
Michael Feingold has twice won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism, most recently in 2015 for his "Thinking About Theater" columns on TheaterMania, and has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism. He serves as chairman of the Obie Awards and has also worked as a playwright, translator, and dramaturg.