How Do Cell Phones Fit in Live Theater?

April 18, 2016 Yaroslav Pastukhov

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As someone who has been in the industry for 33 years, I have gained some intimate knowledge of the way performing arts industries are successfully operated. Because of my unique series of roles in the industry, I’ve watched the industry evolve into an age where patrons are used to using the cell phones regularly, often to the detriment of the in-venue experience. 

So I am wondering about the best way for a venue to find the balance between talking to the customer and engaging them, while still figuring a way to get them to turn their phone off when the show starts, as audiences demand more interactivity between the venue and the organization, they are also looking for more interactivity between themselves and the performers.

It’s not a situation that unique to the performing arts space. In early April, AMC CEO Adam Aron said in an interview that the cinema chain was debating allowing moviegoers to use their phones during the show, loosening it’s zero-tolerance policy. “When you tell a 22-year-old to turn off the phone, don’t ruin the movie, they hear please cut off your left arm above the elbow,” said Aaron in an interview with Variety. Aron’s statements were met with internet backlash by those who felt that cell phones had no place in movie theaters, which prompted the AMC CEO to release a statement a few days later saying that he had decided against his earlier idea. “We have heard loud and clear that this is a concept our audience does not want,” said Aron in the statement. 

I agree that the problem with patrons using their devices is the worst it has ever been, reminding me of Patti LuPone’s actions during a performance at the Lincoln Center in 2015. Patti was making an exit and she saw a women who had been texting and using her phone throughout the show and LuPone took it and just walked right off stage, and I get it. There’s something symbolic that happens between the audience and the performer in a live theater moment. It’s supposed to be about emotion and about the two-way flow of communication and passion and engagement, and when you have a light beaming up at you you’re not engaged. That’s a real issue that performing arts is having to tackle, and most arts organizations who are forward thinking are keen to figure out how to do both.

But, lets be realistic. Mobile devices can work in conjunction with the efforts that performing arts centers are looking to address by engaging patrons before and after the show, while still requesting that they turn their phones off when the curtain goes up. For example, I really like the way that the SHN production company in San Francisco has found an engaging way to rely on patron’s attachment to their devices without sacrificing the quality of the performances. “They have a text-to-win contest inside their theater at every single performance. They encourage the audience through program ads, signage and inserts to text to win all kinds of fun things from tickets, show swag, even a cruise.  They then communicate back to your text on the particulars and how to pick up your prize.  All the while you are inside the theater, so they encourage you to use your cell phone, but you’re also told to turn it off before the curtain goes up. They’re really fun that way.

By speaking to patrons before and after the performance, organizations can enhance the overall experience. Anytime an organization takes the time to use an infrastructure in advance that says ‘Hi Maureen, I know you’re coming to the theater. Can we suggest these restaurants?’ Or ‘We know there’s going to be a parking problem, here is the best place to park and here are the rates,’ or even when they tell me what kind of things they have located inside of the theater so I know what to expect when I come in. When they give me the information and start to welcome me before I get there and they call me by name, that’s the first step of it.

You want your patrons engaged all the way through to actually participate. Because you want them buying drinks and you may want them to upgrade their seats, so you want to communicate with them in some way. But you still need to communicate the veil of courtesy that needs to be pulled down and for them to respect the etiquette of the theater. And after the curtain goes down and the patrons leave the show, you can use the same technology to find out what they thought of the event in a way that makes the patron feel comfortable. As an example, I like to be thanked afterwards. It’s a simple, highly impactful gesture when delivered in a timely manner. Using technology to thank someone afterwards is great. After I attend the shows in Denver I get an email that thanks me for coming and asks me to fill out their survey, and I always fill out the survey.

So while cell phones can engage the patrons and provide a better experience for the show, I personally think that there’s more to be gained with establishing healthy boundaries that cater to and take advantage of audience tendencies. What’s exciting is that given the social media realities, I think programming will go towards finding performances that will allow that level of interaction to happen, but it will have to come from the artistic side. That said, I don’t think the traditional theater stage play is going to change, because that’s one of the reasons you go to the theater or the ballet or the opera. To sit and revel in a deeply human experience.

Update 1/13/17:

Apple recently announced that for its newest software release, iOS 10 will include something called 'Theater Mode' which many believe will reduce the brightness and turn down the volume when activated. This solution may make users stand out less to other theater goers, but still ignores the idea around this topic. Theater should force you to pay attention, at least for a few hours. If you absolutely can't go without your phone during the show this could be a happy compromise, but it might also be a sign that you need to seek out more engaging programming. 

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