Before just about every theater performance I attend there’s an announcement about turning off cell phones and unwrapping candy in crinkly wrappers. (The latter always seems to evoke a chuckle for some reason.) Some of those warnings include beeping watches, pagers (does anyone still have a pager?) and photography, and the most advanced alert: mentioning to everyone that texting during the performance is not permitted.
The Cincinnati Playhouse often turns these announcements into humorous moments about actors onstage with weapons or cell phones being anachronistic in historical dramas.
Despite these appeals, however, about half the time I’m at a theater a cell phone distracts me. Less often, but not infrequently, I see audience members using a camera phone at the Aronoff Center or checking the time by flashing the illuminated face on their phone and then quickly running through text messages.
Make no mistake: This is rude and thoughtless behavior. It breaks the concentration of others in the audience, and it could distract a performer. (At a recent production of Gypsy on Broadway, Patti LuPone stopped the performance and ordered ushers to eject someone who had flashed a camera during her closing number.) Occasionally people who have obeyed the pre-show warning make a call at intermission and neglect to power down or silence their phones.
A few theaters in New York City have experimented with technology that blacks out phone reception within the venue, but that’s both expensive and futile, since many people might have legitimate reasons to make calls during intermission.
Truth to tell, if I had my way, cell phones would simply not be allowed in theaters — or at least they should be powered down completely. Surely we can spend an evening in the theater without having to be connected constantly. I’m probably a Luddite about this, but it’s truly a matter of courtesy and attentiveness.
At the other end of the spectrum of silence vs. noise, let me mention another pet peeve: standing ovations. Despite our local reputation for politeness, I don’t think we’re more prone to such displays in Cincinnati, but they really don’t mean much anymore.
Every opening night I attend at the Aronoff Center gets one, regardless of the quality of the touring show. Those audiences are perhaps more star-struck than those at the Playhouse or Ensemble Theatre. But even theatergoers at those venues tend to stand up on opening nights, as if it’s rude not to do so. In fact, some people apparently think they have to jump to their feet to express their admiration.
But such demonstrations cheapen the value of a true standing O, which I’ve been part of only a few times — and I see about 100 shows annually. Of course, this is about crowd behavior: One or two people start it, then it catches on like the “wave” at the sports stadium, and soon everyone is up on their feet. My appeal is simply this: Don’t stand up unless a performance or a performer has made your heart race and truly transported you somewhere you’ve never been before.
Then it’s worth it. If it happens, you have my permission to turn on your cell phone — on your way out of the theater — to call someone and describe the extraordinary experience.
CONTACT RICK PENDER: firstname.lastname@example.org