No Need to Dispatch Miss Manners to Broadway
Much as I agree with Judith H. Dobrzynski that consuming art requires a more focused attention than many other activities, I can't say that I believe etiquette is worsening at New York theaters -- not even on Broadway, as Ellen Gamerman's Wall Street Journal piece would have one believe. In my experience as a several-times-a-week theatergoer, cell phones ring far less often than they did even a year or two ago. With a legal ban in place, regulars are accustomed to turning them off, and theaters are not shy about reminding the audience (via any means necessary: Playbill inserts, recorded announcements, a word from an usher, a curtain speech) to do so.
The other examples of outrageous audience behavior Gamerman cites are simply gross aberrations from the norm, not evidence that theatergoers have lost their bearings, or that tourists and bargain hunters are lowering the bar for us all.
American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus, on the other hand, absolutely is lowering that bar with a plan to let people keep their phones on at ART this summer. It is, as she tells Gamerman, a radical idea -- but, embracing as it does the self-centeredness that's corroding so much of contemporary life, it may not have the effect she desires. Can human beings be so different in Cambridge, Mass., than in New York City? Even if what she intends to do there were legal here, it simply would not fly -- with actors or audiences.
On Saturday, I went to Ethan Coen's trio of one-acts, "Offices," at Atlantic Theater Company in Chelsea. To my right was a guy in his 20s or 30s. At some point deep in the performance, the phone in his left pants pocket went off: a few notes of quiet, almost gentle electronic melody. Shooting upward in his seat as if he'd been electrocuted, he whispered, "Oh my God," swiftly grabbed the phone, and silenced it faster than I'd ever heard anyone silence a phone. His mortification was palpable, the distraction brief.
That was the first time in a long time that I'd heard a phone ring at the theater, off-Broadway or on. Maybe I've just been enjoying an unusual streak of good luck, and audiences elsewhere are running rampant. But I don't think so. Most of them, I believe, are more like the guy next to me at "Offices": eager to be present in the moment, and trying their best not to ruin that moment for anyone else.