Last spring, at a Sunday matinee of Tracy Letts' critically acclaimed Broadway play August: Osage County, film stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon were in attendance. Reportedly, they didn't see much of the show. According to an account in the New York Post's Page Six, during the single act they remained in the theatre, they had their heads bent down over their Blackberrys, feverishly sending text-messages.
At another recent Broadway performance, a talent agent sat down to take in his client's performance and immediately began texting on a Blackberry. When the agent's client made his entrance, the man put down the device. But after the actor exited the stage, the Blackberry came right out again.
It's the theatre's latest techno-menace: the text-message. If it hasn't quite overtaken the ringing cell phone as the leading audience disturbance, it is fast gaining ground. The house lights go down, and the small, glowing blue screens go on. Some (older) texters are taking care of business matters. Some (younger) texters are sending private missives to a friend across the auditorium, or even to the person who's sitting right next to them. Mim Pollack, the chief usher at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, experiences such offenders every day. Recently, at a performance of South Pacific, "everyone was being reminded to turn off their personal communication devices and a kid, a teenager, was sitting there texting. I had to put a flashlight on him to get him to turn it off."
But it isn't all kids, despite that age group's known mania for sending abbreviated, coded notes from one electronic device to the next. Pollack witnesses as many adults as tweens tapping away. The adults are generally still on the clock, sending memos to colleagues and clients. "People just don't give themselves any downtime," she said. "People are in a theatre for live entertainment. They have a short period of time in which to wait for it. Yet, they can't even be in conversation with the person they're with. They're busy either trying to be on the phone or texting another person who is not there. It's the depersonalization of the communication of the world."
The phenomenon confounds Susan Martin, who is charge of all front-of-house personnel at the Broadway theatres owned by the Nederlander Organization. "We want people to disconnect in a different kind of way," she said. "We want them to disconnect form reality and pay attention to what's going on on the stage."
To Pollack, text-messaging and ringing cell phones are all part of the same ringing, buzzing, beeping problem. "It's all the same thing; it's a cell phone." And Martin considers the two interruptions equally annoying. "To me, text-messaging is the same as making or receiving a telephone call," she said. "It's very annoying if you're sitting next to them. That light is very bright."
But text-messaging, it could be argued, is the more aggressively rude behavior of the two. Answering a ringing cell is a largely passive act. Taking out one's cell or Blackberry and initiating a text exchange requires action and intent.
The official policy of the ushers union is to remind people to put away their electronic devices. If patrons ignore the suggestion and take the machines out during a performance, they are politely (or not so politely) asked by ushers to turn the things off. But that's as far as the policy goes.
"People get belligerent about it," said Pollack. "I don't want ushers to be put in a position of a confrontational situation. You can wind up in a major argument and it can be disruptive."
John Loiacono, who is the house manager at Disney's New Amsterdam Theatre — and who has seen text-messaging increase over the last year — has had plenty of success with that simple approach. He explained, "Ushers ask them to stop. Often they start again. Then, the ushers ask them to stop again. After a couple times, the usher will ask them to continue outside. Usually they do."
Loiacono said the New Amsterdam's pre-show announcement to the audience, alerting them to switch off all electronic devices, does not currently include any specific message of text-messaging. But that is something that may be considered in the future, he said. Jersey Boys is also considering that option. The Winter Garden, which housed Mamma Mia!, the Roundabout Theatre Company, which maintains the American Airlines Theatre and Studio 54, Lincoln Center Theater, and the Biltmore Theatre, run by Manhattan Theatre Club, currently do not make announcements admonishing texting.
One advertising company, Situation Marketing, thinks it may have hatched a way to harness the public's passion for texting and convert it from a negative to a positive for the show.
A year ago, the company tested out a new marketing strategy at Spring Awakening, in which audience members could text into a particular address in an attempt to win a show-related prize. At the end of the show, a text message would inform the participants if they had won. The strategy was also tried at Legally Blonde. "When we first started this campaign, we make the argument that it helps people shut their cell phone off," said Damien Bazadona, president of Situation Marketing. He noted that, after a theatregoer had sent in a message, they received a message back requesting that they turn off their phone or Blackberry. "I've received no complaints from any of the theatres about cell phones going off."
Bazadona is currently using the texting campaign at Passing Strange, where cast members are also invited to get involved by sending messages to a live blog. "It's a cost efficient way of getting the word out. How do we take the excitement of the show and theatre and transfer that outwards as people leave the venue?"
Out of the venue — exactly where text-messaging belongs.
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