I believe it was Dostoyevsky who once wrote, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering a theater and seeing how many cell phones go off during a performance.” As a culture critic for the people, I attend a decent number of Broadway performances each year. Now, I am a practical man and realize that against my best hopes, and the heroic efforts of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain, cell phone usage during movies is a lost cause. Even a movie militant as strident as me has fallen back to a position of “Can you at least dim your screen if you are going to text for 1/3 of the movie???” But Broadway, where the culture is snootier and the tickets more expensive? Surely it can stand athwart rudeness yelling Stop, right? Well, don’t expect the man in flip flops and shorts sitting behind you in the August Wilson Theater to give you the response you desire.
The last Broadway show I saw was last week. It was a play called The Thanksgiving Play. It was solid and it stood out to me for one particular reason. No, it was not because it made me see Janet from The Good Place as a sexy Amazonian, though it did. It stood out because it was the first play I can remember seeing in the last decade where I did not hear one cell phone go off. Perhaps it was because there were two people like this, standing in the theater reminding patrons of something important:
Now, while I appreciate the theater doing what it takes, is this where we are? Entering a theater, having a warning stated over the PA system and have a request in the playbill are not all sufficient enough to get people to turn off their phones? Apparently not.
A week earlier I went to Funny Girl, which was a great show. Tickets were extremely expensive and as befits a man of my stature, the couple sitting in front of me was a Property Brother (I do not know which one) and Zoe Deschanel. What warmed my heart was to see Pro-Zo (my celeb name for them) sitting cuddly, clapping for musical numbers and saying less than 10 words the entire show. The same could not be said for the man sitting behind me who never stopped providing answers to rhetorical questions posed by the actors and articulating things like “that was funny” when laughter would have sufficed. This kind of verbal tagging is awful at comedy clubs where ticket are $20 a pop. It is unforgiveable in a theater where the seats were $250 each. And while I was admiring Pro-Zo’s respectful conduct, a phone went off in the second half of the show on the other side of the theater. But I was not surprised, as a young woman had shoved me out of the way at intermission to make sure she was 48th instead of 66th on the line for the women’s bathroom.
I am old fashioned in that I like spaces that occasionally remind us that humans can be classy. I don’t wear sneakers to the theater. I generally dress business casual and if I wasn’t an overweight slob I would probably put on a suit (no tie). But cell phone culture, which has invaded just about every facet of public life, extends to the “I’ll wear what I want” vibe. The email I received from the Funny Girl theater a day before the show included admonitions about cell phone use, but also a gentle suggestion that “some people choose to dress nicely for the theater… it is not required, but…” But if you have been to the theater (saying nothing of the sad fact that the only way to sell tickets is generally celebrity casting or adapting a pre-existing, popular property – Marvel The Musical can only be a few years away) it really is anything goes.
My friend Nick is a magician in LA and he works at the prestigious Comedy & Magic Castle. They have a dress code. Nick has told me that often men will cite the price of their jeans or sneakers or t-shirt as reasons why the do not need to wear a jacket. The answer is that there is a dress code. I think one reason the CMC is a popular hot spot is specifically because it is mandating a level of old school class. From Bar Mitzvahs to proms to weddings to funerals there is something in a lot of us that love the formality of certain occasions. Perhaps we have been conditioned to it or perhaps we just don’t want to see someone’s hairy knee when look at our theater arm rest, but whatever the reason, I think it is nice to have some spaces that we treat as sanctified, even if only in a secular way.
I think the worst recent example I’ve experienced at the theater was at How I Learned to Drive, which I saw last year. The show is about grooming and sexual abuse and one of the actors came out before the show began and told the audience that the play was serious and they wanted everyone to turn off their phones. Phones went off three times during the show. “And that’s when my uncle put his hands under my – RING RING.” This is probably how Catholics more hard core than me are drawn to Opus Dei when they see someone in flip flops and shorts playing an acoustic guitar at Mass.
Obviously our culture has undergone seismic shifts in the last generation or two. Decreasing reverence for and practice of religion, increased usage of cell phones and a decrease in what is considered discourteous or rude, etc. And I am not connecting the two so do not take this as some religious screed (though replacing reverence for a “higher power” with “I’m an influencer” does feel like it could have bad repercussions in some cases). But when I am at a movie and a dozen phone screens are lit up or on a bus and 3 different people are blaring videos or music from their phones without headphones it makes one wonder, are there any spaces where people still collectivity act in a courteous manner? The theater feels like it would be one of those places, but perhaps I need to get into opera or ballet if I want a more reverent environment (or perhaps that is lost as well as I don’t go to either).
I’d like this to end with a “so let’s be better!” hopeful tone, but the last decade plus has just shown me that we have not reached bottom yet. This weekend The Phantom of the Opera, Broadway’s longest running show ever, closed. I never got to see it and amidst the celebrities, including Andrew Lloyd Webber, at the final show on Sunday, I was just left to wonder from a supermarket check out line: who was the final cell phone to go off during the show?