Has Technology Doomed Theater Etiquette?

Patti LuPone in Shows for Days. Photo by Joan Marcus via BroadwayWorld.

Early this week a man climbed onstage before the Broadway play Hand to God and attempted to charge his phone in the fake set outlet, and the Internet exploded with disbelief and outrage. On Wednesday, Patti LuPone endured what she called a “cacophony of noise” when four cell phones went off during the matinee of Shows for Days, and was inspired to take a texting audience member’s device away during her evening performance. A few months back, Madonna (who should know better as a fellow performer and former modern dancer!) was pointedly not invited backstage at Hamilton because she texted through Act 2.

Though rudeness during dance performances hasn’t made any headlines lately, I’ve certainly experienced my fair share of ringing phones and distracting bright screens at various venues throughout New York City. The way that everyone openly disregards requests to turn off their cell phones (not silence! not put on airplane mode! turn off!) is near humorous. Almost as disturbing as these blatant offenses is the rush to put face to screen at every intermission or pause. Instead of processing, discussing and arguing about what we’ve seen, we Instagram our programs, tweet about our days and check our emails.

As a millennial, I’m nostalgic for a time that I never experienced, and that may have never really existed. Was there a time when the reverence for live performance went beyond merely showing respect for the performers by staying engaged and quiet, but involved total absorption in the experience from start to finish and a short hiatus from acknowledging the outside world? I wish that I could experience performances this way, but I spend my intermission looking up information about the piece I’m seeing, or planning what I’m going to do afterwards. Even though I consider myself an engaged audience member, I know I would have a different experience if I powered off from the time I stepped into the theater until I left. Maybe next time.

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