Text Me Later (Or: How Theater Isn't Baseball)

It's the glow that kills the atmosphere: brightness surrounded by a seeping luminescence. In the darkness of the theater, it draws the peripheral vision of even the most determinedly focused spectators.

The source? Some jerk, text-messaging during the show.

Banning texting at the theater is a crucial extension of the prohibition against cell-phone use during performances, but I'd never heard a pre-show announcement forbidding it until last weekend, when I went to see the stageFARM's "The Gingerbread House" at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in the West Village. When I wrote about it the other day on True/Slant, saying that if a device glows in the dark, it shouldn't be turned on during the performance, I didn't expect to hear someone I respect arguing for the other side, let alone suggesting general codes of behavior at the theater need some rethinking. Then I opened my e-mail.

"I'm not sure I care if people are texting or not," wrote a friend who works in theater, adding that he'd once caught students texting each other about the show during a weekday matinee. "That's not a bad thing."

I begged to differ, and thus began our little e-mail brawl, his part of which he's given me permission to quote here.

For my friend, texting has been a recent topic of staff discussions, in which people have been divided about how to deal with it.

"Why are we so precious about the way in which we view theater?" he asked me. "Does it always have to be quietly and in the dark? Why can't theater be more like baseball? I can talk, eat, hear screaming voices, see people moving around and watch the game all at the same time -- and not really miss anything. I think we have to shake things up a bit. Stop demanding human beings -- coughing, fidgeting, farting, eating human beings -- be themselves when watching a play."
I don't know about anyone else, but if the people around me at the theater were coughing, fidgeting, farting, and eating, I'd vacate the premises pretty quickly and not worry about blocking their view of the stage as I brushed by. No, people can't always help coughing. Sometimes they have to shift in their seats, too. But individuals who are being uninhibitedly themselves are rarely people strangers want to be around. That's why etiquette exists. It's why babies, who come into the world as squalling barbarians, are (one hopes) civilized by their parents as quickly as possible, and it's why those of us who don't want 3-year-old Titan lobbing a roll at us across the restaurant are not huge fans of laissez-faire parenting.

What, then, is precious about not wanting to be bothered by other people in the audience at the theater? If they're alone in their living room, watching a DVD, they can make all the noise they want, and when they miss something, they can rewind. And if they play that DVD while paying no attention to it whatsoever, the actors won't be the least bit affected by their behavior.

Telling this to my friend only returned him to his baseball analogy. "I've always wondered why actors get so annoyed when someone coughs or says something in the audience, while baseball players stay focused even when people around them are screaming, 'Get your beer here!' and a ball is flying at them at 95 mph."

But the analogy is flawed -- partly because of differing expectations at the ballpark and at the theater, but for other reasons as well.

We can watch sports on TV, whether at home or at a bar, with the sound on or off; we can listen to a play-by-play on the radio, never catching a glimpse of the game; we can watch at the ballpark, eyes on the field, ears on the announcer; or we can be at the ballpark, listening to the radio play-by-play and keeping our eyes not on the field but on the Jumbotron. Sound and visuals are separable, and immersion with rapt attention to all facets isn't required in order to get a full experience.

Theater doesn't work that way, not even when we fall in love with a musical by listening to the cast recording before we ever see it live.

When someone's gone to a play, we don't ask her afterward, "Who won? What was the score?" We ask, "How was it?" In order for her to know the answer to that, attention must be paid. And it's a kind of attention that demands more effort of the audience than passive forms of entertainment like movies, TV or sports. It's a cliché of theater to say that actors get energy from the audience, but they do, and you can feel it in a performance. An audience focused on a glowing screen isn't going to hear that line land, isn't going to see the fluid movement of an actor's body, isn't going to register an eloquent shift in the lighting. The performance will be lost on them and, with their concentration elsewhere, something will be lost from the performance.

Most theater is text-based, and understanding the words is paramount. That's true even in musical theater, hordes of foreign tourists on Broadway notwithstanding. In opera, the music takes precedence; in musical theater, as in drama, enunciation is key. But even the most talented multitaskers among us will not be able to take in that language if they're reading and writing text messages during the show. Likewise, the sounds and silences that are built into the experience of movement-based theater will be nothing but background to them.

Not all of this applies, of course, at outdoor theater, where the expectations and behaviors of audiences and artists are not what they are indoors. In the most casual outdoor settings -- the picnic-in-the-park setup, or street theater -- it's perfectly okay to talk, eat, cough and move around. Extraneous noise, whether from a barking dog or an ambulance, is part of the deal.

But cacophony isn't always what we want, or what best serves a play, and there's nothing precious about insisting that an audience be fully present at a performance.

Part of what I find interesting about the stageFARM's godsend of a pre-show announcement is that the company, whose slogan is "We make plays for play-haters," aims itself squarely at "a generation weaned on the immediacy of MySpace and YouTUBE" [sic] and alienated by theater's "cost, pretense, and elitism." If the stageFARM doesn't believe it's necessary to open the texting gates in order to engage its target audience of young people new to theatergoing, why should anyone else? It's not as if the company is enforcing local law by putting the kibosh on texting. While New York City bans the use of cell phones during performances, that 2003 law is limited to making or receiving calls, not texts. The stageFARM has gone a step beyond what's required to actively teach theater etiquette to people who can't be expected to know it.

I understand my friend's delight at discovering that kids were texting each other about the show during a performance. Any youthful excitement about the theater is encouraging. It's the kids' timing that was off, which is what made what they were doing rude. It's entirely possible that they ruined the experience of other first-timers by distracting them from what was going on onstage, and they may have harmed the experience of loyal patrons, too. Whatever they had to say to each other, they could have said later -- at intermission or after the show, in person or via text.

Theater, like so many industries, tends to be a little bit desperate to attract young people, but it needs to be careful about how it does that. It's not helpful to alienate the rest of the audience in order to give free rein to the rude people, even if some of them are young.
May 3, 2009 1:46 PM | | Comments (12)


I've gone to plays since I was a teenager. I love the dark, intimate and most of all, quiet and classy atmosphere of the theater as opposed to the garish noisiness of a baseball stadium (which I also love for different reasons). I've been a cell phone user since 2004 and love my texts, emails, IMs, etc. (I have a BlackBerry that I'm hooked on). But when the lights dim and the curtain opens, it's time to shut the phone off, put it away and enjoy the show.

Indeed, it's never occurred to me to do anything other than shut my phone off in any theater (movie or playhouse) and I can't believe that people today think that texting in a dark, intimate place where others are trying to concentrate is OK.

Perhaps there need to be cell phone etiquette classes in high school.

I'm not up on my theatre history enough to know when the theatre became a sanctum. It was a casual venue for hundreds if not thousands of years. Shakespeare performed in theatres that had an almost carnival atmosphere! There were vendors walking through the house.

I think it's a very interesting idea to have a more baseball like atmosphere. When the play is good, people will pay attention. Just like at a baseball game, the stadium gets VERY quiet at intense moments. As a practitioner myself, it makes me cringe a little to write that, but I think more people would come if it was more like sports than church. Maybe playwrights would become a little less preachy and a little more active.

It isn't just young people. I attended Waiting for Godot this evening, and an elderly woman thought it was perfectly fine to come in late and then start texting. She pretty much verbally abused me during intermission for requesting that she turn it off. Waiting for Godot is a production that involves a lot of concentration in order to hear it. I love theater, but I am distracted and my enjoyment is greatly diminished by vibrating or ringing cell phones, the glow of a cell phone on for texting, and people entering the theater late. If texting is allowed in theaters and/or it is not a rule not to text, I may decide not to go, because it is too costly to spend an evening trying to concentrate over the audience's behavior. The audience then becomes part of the show. That is fine for some types of shows with audience interaction, but I believe that some theater needs to be experienced with silence from the audience. Have people forgotten how to be present and listen?

I completely agree that cell phone usage of any kind in a traditional theatre setting is rude. In fact, I wish we could follow Israel's lead in installing cell phone blocking devices in theatres. It's illegal in Canada.

However--let's also challenge ourselves to make pieces of theatre in which the relationship with the audience doesn't need to be so delicate. In February I made a show at a bar in Calgary that was played entirely on mic. Drinks service continued throughout the show (I vetoed food service), people could chat with each other, shift in their seats, or even text if they wanted to... but mostly they watched the show. I was amazed at the level of audience engagement--it was electric, unlike anything I'd seen before.

And holy crap, we packed the joint out nightly.

As a director, it really annoys me when people hold full conversations, talk on the phone and text during one of my shows. It is plain rude. The actors and I have worked for weeks or months to bring something special to the audience. Every night on stage is different. The stage is an entity that "lives." There is a bond between actor and stage, to provide the audience with temporary escapism and entertainment, to feel, whether to laugh or cry or both. A text light or a cell phone going off doesn't help the ambiance.

Theatre is an art.

Would these ignorant people see a painting, say the Mona Lisa and change the colors of the background because it's not modern enough? I would hope not. Texting or phoning during a live theatrical presentation shows the same degree of rudeness. Unless the person is a doctor, what's so important that they can't respond during intermission. No one is that important.

There's nothing quite like that experience of working in a small, intimate theatre, heading into your critical final scene, which will be followed by sitting motionless & dead for the remaining 20 minutes of the play, and seeing some pop tart in the front row whip out her little pink Razr and begin texting away not 10 feet from you ... and continuing to blithely tika tika for an eternity.

The only positive part was that I'm confident the offender will never text in a performance again - she was virtually mobbed in the foyer after the show ... by the technician, the stage manager, the house manager and most of the audience.

We actually started asking our audience during our pre-show speech to "refrain from text-messaging" during the performance. It gets chuckles every time. It's something we didn't think of asking until last season when we started seeing it appear in more an more performance reports.

While I love to hear that students during a matinee of "Complete Works of Shakespeare" were text messaging their friends and family at intermission and after the show, it still annoys me when it happens during the performance. And it's not just kids...adults are just as guilty.

And a baseball game is different. It's loud and bright. A theatre is intimate, dark, and depending on the show, quiet. I hate when I'm at the movies and someone next to me texts during the whole thing. I paid my $10 and now I'm distracted by the jerk next to me. The same goes for live theatre...except those people have paid upwards of $50.

In addition to asking our audience to refrain from texting, we remind them that taking photographs -- including with a cell phone -- are strictly prohibited. Again, we didn't think we needed to state that cell phone photography was off limits, until we had questions. I was actually asked by an 8 year old before the start of children's show if he could take photos. So it's not just limited to the 12 and up crowd...

For the those who'd like the sports-fan approach: you have Blue Man Group. Enjoy!

When I work as a lighting designer, if I want a glowing object in the middle of the audience, I will put it there, and I will cue it into the show. A person who brings a glowing object into the visual field of the audience without my permission is disrupting my design and ought to be dragged out by the ear and beaten soundly.

Another thought:

The actor's primary tool is her/his voice; the baseball analogy would be apt only if the fans were dashing onto the field to intefere with the players' ability to throw/catch/hit the ball.

I think your friend should consider a new career because he/she clearly hasn't got a clue what's happening on stage to the actor. Strange.
There IS theatre that's made to be experienced this way. I was part of a company a few years that made a show about flirting. It was an hour and a bit with a 15 minute interval that happened 15 minutes in. The twist was that the bar was on-stage and there was lots of opportunity for getting to know other members of the audience. Many other people are making shows with similar dynamics.
BUT most theatre has an audience relationship that is fragile. That's what makes it exciting, dynamic and live. Glaring screens, popcorn, whispered commentaries - aaaaargh!

The artists -- the playwright, actors, director, and various designers -- have worked very hard to create the right visual and aural environment for any given production; the least an audience member can do is to show them (as well as one's fellow patrons) respect by not destroying it.


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This page contains a single entry by Critical Difference published on May 3, 2009 1:46 PM.

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