When I went to see Satchmo at the Waldorf on Friday, a middle-aged woman sitting in the center of the second row pulled out her cellphone midway through the performance and spent five minutes checking her e-mail. The upstairs auditorium of the Westside Theatre is steeply raked, meaning that the phone was clearly visible to most of the audience—and the light that it emitted made the woman in question just as visible to John Douglas Thompson, who was standing in front of her.
“I thought of chewing her out in character,” John told me after the show. “It didn’t matter which character I was playing—I could have cussed her out as Satchmo, Joe Glaser, or Miles Davis. The only thing that stopped me was that I was afraid I’d go up in my lines. Otherwise I would have given her hell.”
“If I’d been sitting behind her, I would have given her hell,” I replied. As for Mrs. T, she was too busy spluttering with rage to put in her two cents’ worth.
I’ve seen a fair amount of uncivil behavior in theaters over the years, so it takes a lot to make me boggle—but that did it. To check your e-mail in the middle of a performance is rude no matter where you’re sitting. To do it when you’re fifteen feet away from the stage upon which a one-man play is being performed is unforgivable.
The most effective turn-off-your-cellphones announcement I’ve ever heard preceded a performance by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company of David Mamet’s American Buffalo. It went like this: Turn off your ******* phones. (I’ll let you fill in the blank.)
Short of that extremity, I doubt that any pre-show announcement, no matter how clever, will persuade the boors among us to clean up their act. The time, then, has come for an unrelentingly aggressive campaign of public shaming. From now on, I swear to chew out on the spot any playgoer whom I catch using a cellphone in the middle of a performance. So should you. So should we all—and so should every stage actor in America.
The next time it happens to John, I want him to stop the show cold, point at the offender, and say, “I can see that you’re using a cellphone. That’s inconsiderate and disrespectful, not just to me but to everyone who bought a ticket to the show. So please turn it off—right now—or one of the ushers will escort you out of the theater.”
That’ll shut ’em down.