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Mobility Impaired II

Combating Mobile Phone Addiction in Theaters

Remember on airline flights when you not only chose between aisle or window seats but smoking and non-smoking? Remember when you got stuck in the last row of the non-smoking section? Happened to me a couple of times. I also remember going to a cinema in England to see the original Star Wars film and having to choose a smoking or non-smoking section.

Remember getting to choose your seats at a theater in the non-cell-phone section instead of the cell-phone-and-texting seats? No? That's because we as a society have not yet advanced that far.

A hand holding to the camera a smartphone with a stop sign on the screen--looks graphic cartoon likeThis is the sequel to my commentary of Aug. 2, 2014, "Mobility Impaired: An Intervention for Smartphone Abusers." That article compared cell phone use (not just in theaters but on the roads and in other public and not-so-public places) with substance abuse, in which the addict is not aware of how much his or her behavior and environmental awareness deteriorates with increasing use. That was a rant born of increasing frustration.

This is a response to my own rant and the volume (in quantity and level) of response from people sharing my frustrations. If mobile phones and tablets are an increasing problem for theaters and for us patrons losing patience with the people next to us checking their texts or playing another round of Candy Crush, then we need to look for viable solutions. I posed that challenge to theater practitioners and fans on Reddit and Facebook in the wake of my first commentary and received some useful replies as well as a few calls to "embrace the technology." I've also distilled into calm[er] observation my experiences from attending more than 570 plays, probably half of which have been in the mobile device era.

But I owe the example that introduces this commentary to novelist and reader Lois Leveen (Juliet's Nurse, The Secrets of Mary Bowser), who, in an e-mail she sent me, expanded on my observations about the addictive nature of mobile phones. "We are on these devices so much, we cannot stay off them, even when it is rude or dangerous," she wrote. "Although I don't text while driving or in the theater, I do realize that I pick up my phone or open my laptop to do a specific thing, and suddenly I get sucked in and can't believe how long I've been on. (What you're smelling is lunch burning on the stove as I write this.)"

Leveen notes that theaters have combatted addictive behavior in the past: nobody smokes in theaters anymore, and many theaters successfully keep people from eating and drinking in their seats, even though cinemas (and some theaters) not only allow it but encourage it. "So, I think theaters need to announce, repeatedly, that their policy is that anyone whose phone rings, vibrates, or buzzes during the show, anyone whose phone is taken out and activated at any time for any reason, will be asked to leave the theater immediately. And then they must have ushers ready to enforce it, the same as if someone lit a cigarette."

Easier said than done, many front-of-house managers and ushers will tell you. Ushers aren't paid enough—most are not paid at all—to be bouncers, and many house managers are too busy (and, many argue, not paid enough) to devote the attention necessary to extricate a cell phone abuser and handle potential legal ramifications evolving from the cell phone abusers who become outrageously belligerent when asked to put their phones away. They argue that their rights to check texts are being trampled, totally unaware that the majority of the surrounding people would like to trample more than the texter's rights.

That last phrase might sound flippant, but it's truly part of the big picture here. My sister-in-law almost got into a fistfight, accosting a woman smoking behind us during a concert in the pre-smoking-ban era. I've seen reports of scuffles over cell phone use in theaters, with other patrons literally tossing the mobile devices out of the auditorium when management wouldn't toss out the users. At least one shooting in a cinema was prompted by someone using his cell phone during a movie. Theaters need to head off the point when audiences engage in vigilante justice.

I've come close to raising a ruckus myself, during King Lear at Central Park's Delacorte Theater in New York this past summer. I could have—probably should have—asked the woman two seats over from me to put away her phone. However, I didn't want to be the disturber of the peace of those around me, so my passive aggressive recourse was to be extra clumsy stepping past her as I left for the restroom during intermission, managing to stomp on her toes and kick her shin in the process. But I also counted on the two ushers who were looking at the woman as she texted—ushers who, before the show, told us to turn off all cell phones and keep them off. The ushers, though, never acted, even during intermission, and as my clumsiness didn't deliver my message adequately (duh!), the result was this woman pulling out her phone, shooting photos of the play, and texting them during the second half. She then checked her texts again just as Lear carried dead Cordelia on stage: Howl! Howl! Howl!

How do we apportion the blame here: me for not having the nerve to say something earlier? John Lithgow for being a less-than-mesmerizing Lear? Cordelia because she wasn't dead enough? The ushers? Of course, all the blame lands squarely on the rude woman, but as is the nature of such beasts, she is totally unaware of that. Meanwhile, it's neither fair nor wise to put the onus on me or any other patron to police the actions of cell phone abusers. As for Lithgow, he was a pretty good Lear, and Cordelia was as dead as she could be. As for the ushers...

"As a box office and front-of-house person by day, I can say that banning them for a certain portion of the show is going to force the house manager (or an usher) to potentially babysit a patron for a specific amount of time. Not a good idea unless your house manager likes sitting with disgruntled patrons." This was a response in the Reddit discussion after one poster suggested banning cell phone users from the theater. I empathize with the front-of-house person's reservations, both from a logistics and safety perspective (though another Reddit respondent endorsed the notion of a time-out corner for screaming toddlers and texters).

Nevertheless, Leveen is right: Theaters enforce no-smoking and no-eating-and-drinking rules, and they can apply the same rigor in enforcing no-cell-phone rules. That requires a holistic approach, established at the top and at the door and enforced evenly and persistently down through the ranks and into the venue. In fact, the rule could be established beyond the venue itself. City ordnances forbid smoking in certain public places. Would theaters and cinemas be asking too much of local governments to add the specter of fines to their legitimate reasons—public safety, patronage rights, unimpeded commerce (delivering a product of value to consumers)—for outlawing cell phones in their venues?

Just what we need, more government intrusion in our behaviors, right? But that counter argument is one of narrow perspective. I pay $20, $120, $200 to see a movie, play, or concert, and my right to the product I pay for should not be abrogated by another person's "right to text" for those two hours that the product is being delivered: they can exercise their rights out in the lobby or on the street or at home; we can exercise our rights to that specific entertainment only in that specific time and place.

That ultimately is the bottom line: what can only happen inside the venue must be kept sacred from those elements of life that can happen outside the venue. We go to the theater specifically to see a play, and the purpose for which we purchased the ticket (or stood in line for 12 hours) is tantamount to all other considerations. Neither bored spouses and kids dragged along for the show nor patrons with short attention spans and addictive interest in the score of a game or gossip among friends trumps our raison d'existance in the theater at that particular time. This should be the creed of every house manager and usher.

But how to enforce? The front-of-house person on Reddit went on to say that having the house managers or ushers speak with cell phone users privately helps. "I have found, if you call them out personally, they'll get embarrassed and are less likely to pull out their phones in the second act." Another respondent who works front-of-house at a college theater described that theater's policy: "In general, the ushers will spread themselves out in the back of the theater and quietly talk to whoever is on their phone, asking them to put it away. They're usually too embarrassed to continue, although we're allowed to escort them out if they persist." I like this. Does it disturb the audience around them? No more so than seating late-comers.

Every theater does reminders, either prerecorded, as on-stage presentations, or by ushers wandering up and down the aisles. Of course, the reminders are worthless if the ushers (or actors) don't then follow up with enforcement, so that is requirement number one: enforce, as the theater above describes. I also have seen an actor point at one patron and tell him the show would not continue until he put his phone away; the show continued in about three seconds and nobody else dared take out a phone for the rest of the show.

I have found that tone makes a difference, too: is it "a reminder" or is it laying down the law? Some people say friendly, humor-filled requests work best, and maybe so; but the two requests I've seen that inspired total abidance were that of an usher who sternly ordered the patrons to shut off their phones and keep them off, and an actor who glowered as he threatened to unleash a beast—played by another actor—on anybody who used a cell phone. Sure, that skit was funny, but the expression on the actor's face appeared so genuinely threatening that you could hear some nervousness in the audience laughter.

Even if the reminder is gentle, a threat of expulsion should still be tacked on: e.g., "for the safety and comfort of our actors and your fellow patrons, please put away all cell phones and keep them off for the duration of the production; and a reminder, for the safety and comfort of our actors and especially your fellow patrons, you will be asked to leave if you fail to abide by this rule." A concert hall once made an announcement of this sort, and the majority of the audience applauded. There's a lesson for you. And when we saw people pull out their phones and start photographing, they got the flashlight spotlight from an usher: end of violations.

Other suggestions in the Reddit discussion ranged from one theater that offered patrons a free drink in exchange for checking their phones at the bar to a light board manager who shined a laser pointer at cell phone screens during performances. Another suggestion was to make shows better and shorter; but, really, some people are so self-absorbed they would lose interest if the Rapture were happening and start checking their texts.

Then there is the Australian theater that decided, if you can't beat them, join them, in its production of The Who's Tommy, and so is planning to include the audience interacting through social media during the show. I don't agree with the "can't-beat-them-join-them" mentality (isn't theater's artistic merit one of leadership?), but it is an innovative way to remove the fourth wall. Plus, I've seen texts and Tweets included in concerts, not to mention cell phones replacing cigarette lighters for "Freebird" moments—which is cool, but in those instances the cell phone screens are facing the stage. When people are merely taking videos and pictures of the concert with their cell phones, the light is facing us and we have to peer through a forest of upstretched devices and tablets—which is not cool. I'm all for embracing the technology in theater presentations when it is appropriate; but sometimes, it is not, as when Lear comes on stage howling over his dead daughter, or Portia is expounding on mercy, or Hamlet is spinning into an existential spiral, or the Jailor's Daughter is splitting into a dozen personalities.

In those moments, we have a right to a smoke-free, cell-phone-free environment that allows us an unfettered experience. Intervention is the key to ending addictions.

Eric Minton
January 9, 2015

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