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You’ve heard the “Voice of God” announcement as the theater lights begin to dim, requesting that you turn off your cellphone before the show begins. These reminders have become such an integral part of the theater-going experience that we nearly tune them out (not that everyone heeds the request). But not all District theaters want you to put your cell phone away during performances, while others are considering tweaking their policies.
Marketing teams are driving most of these changes—they’re hungry for the free advertising and engagement that social media can bring. But sometimes cell phones are an essential component of the theater performance.
Conceptual artist Brian Feldman’s txt, performed every Sunday at the American Poetry Museum in Brookland, relies on audience members using their phones. When showgoers enter, they receive an anonymous Twitter handle. Feldman then reads aloud whatever tweets get sent from those accounts.
While txt’s use of phones for the actual content of the show is certainly an outlier among performances, it is by no means alone in encouraging audiences to keep their devices out.
Astro Pop Events, which founding member Jei Spatola describes as “burlesque-heavy, theater-lite,” lets audience members keep out their cell phones so they can post live updates about the show they’re seeing.
“We’re pretty loud, so a cell phone wouldn’t interrupt our performance,” Spatola, known onstage as Kittie Glitter, says. “You wouldn’t even hear it ring.”
Just because a call wouldn’t throw off the performers doesn’t mean that Astro Pop has an uncomplicated relationship with the use of mobile devices.
“It’s a real love-hate relationship, you know?” she says. “Social media absolutely helps us, but we don’t want it to ruin the surprise of the show.” One of Astro Pop’s annual shows, Elvis’ Birthday Fight Club, which Spatola co-hosts and co-writes, has a secret roster of fighters. “The element of surprise is part of the fun for the audience and for us as performers, so the biggest thing we ask is that they don’t give away the winners.”
When Astro Pop members see social media posts that reveal the show’s secrets, they’re put in the awkward position of deciding whether to ask people to take them down, which Spatola says they determine on a case-by-case basis. “We love having people be so excited, but we’re trying to encourage people to think it’s cool to know yourself but not tell other people.”
Potentially spoiling the surprise isn’t the only technology issue that Spatola has encountered. “Every once in a while, people will come not just with their phones but with their iPad,” she says. “No matter what, that is just crazy. That’s the equivalent of holding up a shoebox in front of the people behind you.”
Spatola notes that what she calls “real theater” faces a conundrum in figuring out how to deal with cell phone use, or “ultimately, [theater] could be seen as antiquated as silent movies.”
Burlesque performances, though, have to deal with their own unique challenges. “People are willing to be on their phones and take pictures of almost-nude women. I’ve known girls who don’t want to perform anymore because they don’t know what’s happening to those pictures,” Spatola says.
Personal privacy is one reason to ask audiences to put their phones away. Benjamin DuGoff, director of ticket sales and audience services at Studio Theatre, says there are potential legal issues in having people use social media during performances.
“There’s so much intellectual property involved, with the set, with the script itself that we don’t outright own,” DuGoff says. “There’d be a lot of departments that would have to get on board for that.” He says Studio isn’t considering changing its policy on phones, because its small theaters mean that “even a cell phone vibration could be heard not just by patrons but by actors.”
For DuGoff and Studio, the challenge is about finding novel ways of giving that pre-show curtain speech, so audiences actually pay attention to it and remember to turn off their phones. If a ringer does go off during the performance, though, the offender won’t get the heave-ho. “The level of personal embarrassment is punishment enough,” he says.
Joy Johnson, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s audience services director, agrees that kicking out a audience member whose phone goes off is overkill. Shakespeare Theatre Company has been experimenting with “Twitter Nights,” where people are encouraged to tweet before and after the show, and during intermission. A screen in the lobby compiles the 140-character missives.
“We’d love to have conversations with people on Twitter, but our audience doesn’t really tweet so it has not been as successful as we had hoped,” says Johnson. “Our audience is pretty traditional, and they don’t want cell phones. We’re thinking about starting it up again during our Young Professionals Night.”
Johnson says Shakespeare Theatre Company has been talking about doing a “Tweet From Your Seats” night, where people sitting on the mezzanine can use their phones to update social media during a performance.
“It is absolutely a hope to get new audiences from Twitter nights,” Johnson says. “Does it work? I’m not sure. It doesn’t work 100 percent now, but I think it will in the future.”
She notes that not all tweets are good tweets. “When you’re doing a Tweet From Your Seat, you have to be prepared for criticism,” Johnson says. Just ask companies like J.P. Morgan or McDonald’s, which launched their own hashtags only to find conversations derailed by the uncontrollable nature of social media.
And then there’s the matter of attention. If your eyes are on your screen, you might miss something important.
“Our heavy visual production requires constant attention, so every second you need to be watching,” says Paata Tsikurishvili, CEO and founding artistic director of Synetic Theater. Plus, “our theater has spotty service,” so allowing viewers to use their phones might not even work.
“We want our production to transform people into a different world where they don’t remember their cell phones or anything,” he says. “I understand marketing, but when you come in I want the theater to transform you.”
Studio Theatre’s DuGoff has a similar sentiment. “Theater allows you to leave your world and enter a new one. That’s why people often go to the theater, and we want to honor that.”
The question for theater companies is whether people will be willing to go into that new world if it means not bringing their cell phones along for the ride.
And a tip from Johnson of Shakespeare Theatre Company about those tempted to check a score or Facebook in the middle of a show? “Your face really is glowing in the middle of a dark theater. You’re not as stealth as you think.”
Illustration by Lauren Heneghan