The Playgoer: The Cell Phone Wars Escalate

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Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Cell Phone Wars Escalate

From yesterday's Independent (UK):

He was the scourge of the rude and absent-minded theatregoer in London. Now the actor Richard Griffiths has turned his ire on audiences in New York. When mobile phone calls disrupted Wednesday's matinee of The History Boys for the third time, the actor known for his roles in the films Harry Potter and Withnail and I threatened to quit the stage.

He warned that if such bad behaviour continued, he and his co-star Clive Merrison, who plays the ambitious headmaster to Griffiths' maverick teacher in Alan Bennett's award-winning play, would not continue.

"You should be ashamed of yourselves," he told the audience. "I am not going to compete with these electronic devices. You were told to turn them off by the stage manager, you were told it was against the law." He is reported to have added: "We're going to start this scene again. If we hear one more phone go off, we'll... quit this afternoon's performance. You have been warned."

Personally, I'm surprised people didn't take the scolding shoolmaster bit as part of the play!

My favorite such story is one I heard about Laurence Fishburne doing The Lion in Winter at the Roundabout, turning to the audience, in full Henry II regalia and tights, shouting, "You gonna turn that mother fucker off?"

Oh we could all trade such stories for hours. And they're fun. And those who don't turn off their phones sure do cause some distress. But is it a sisiphean struggle? Are we up against something larger in the culture, as the gadgetry only multiplies? The article cites the growing movement for "screeners" to block all wireless service in Londn theatres. If that can work, great. But how long can we keep the beeping-barbarians at the gate?

Or should we also be asking, even if ruefully: are our theatres no longer places of silence?


Anonymous said...

Keeping cell phones on in an unconscious act of aggression in protest of these ridiculous ticket prices.

Aaron Riccio said...

If it were only just on Broadway. You'd think a smaller, more intimate space, where people could easily pinpoint the source of the owner, would embarass people into turning their phones off. No. I've actually seen people answer their phones at an off-Broadway show.

It's inexcusable. Much as I dislike a show to be interrupted, I think it's time that we start doing so, and then heavily fining the offenders (and/or barring them from theaters for a designated time).

June said...

Usually at this point in the year I'd've seen 30 movies or so. This year I've seen six. Largley that's because I've gone to lots of theater, but bloody phones and crinkling and talking and rustling in the MOVIES is absolutely out of control. I seem to spend most of my time in a movie theater in a state of apoplexy about my fellow moviegoers' lack of consideration.

I can't stand it at the theater either, of course, but in comparison, the problem is much less acute.

PeonInChief said...

I think there are several things going on here. The first is a variation on the theme of "see it, want it, buy it" that has infected so much of the affluent classes in the US. What this means is that some folks think that they can do whatever they want, whenever they want.

The second is the "you all are here to serve me" mentality. I've seen people on their cell phones while conducting bank transactions, ordering dinner in a restaurant, making a purchase (of all sorts) and on and on. One's own conversation is surely more important than the bank clerk or waiter, why not the actor or musician.

And while the conversations are usually mundane, I'm not really sure that the woman chattering on her phone the other day really wanted everyone to know that she'd found the number of her husband's girlfriend on his cell phone call list, called her, and had a long conversation about the girlfriend's inappropriate behavior in taking up with a man she knew to be married.

But cell phones are only part of the explosion of bad behavior at various performances. My husband and I recently went to see "Syriana" at our local movie house. As it was an early matinee, there were only about 15 people in the theater. Ah, I thought, these folks are really interested in seeing the movie. They will not chatter to one another about falafel they have eaten. Well...about 20 minutes into the film, one of the couple seated near us left the theater. He returned 15 minutes later, turned to his companion and asked "What happened?" No, no, dear god, I thought, please...NO. But, as I am a nonbeliever, my prayer was not answered, and I heard a buzzing insect to my right for the next ten minutes.

The absolute worst behavior though, topping the time we moved three times in the course of a movie to get away from talkers and finally gave up, was at a concert. The festival program had a benefit performance by Cecilia Bartoli scheduled just after the concert we were attending. As the time approached for the start of her concert, people began leaving, some quietly, some with a flourish. One man, however, who was seated in the second row, decided that he would refrain from disturbing the listeners in the row in which he was seated. So he crawled over the first row of seats, directly in front of the performers, to make his exit.

There is no hope.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how all us theatre lovers would feel going back in time to Shakespeare's Globe, or even American theatres in the mid-19th century. Theatre as a place of reverent, obedient silence is a relatively new phenomenon to western theatre. Once, actors contended with all sorts of noise and distractions. I'm not necessarily defending people who can't be bothered to respect a social convention and an artistic request to turn off their cell-phones, but I do wonder if theatre's sensitivity to such matters is a bit overwrought.