Oh, those annoying paying guests…

How are we in the theatre going to adapt to the omnipresence of technology in the hands of our precious audience members? I for one am so bored with the pre-show “turn off your cell phones and other things that go beep” speech before every single play that I see that hearing it now makes my jaw clench. I realize there is the camp that thinks it’s really a favour to the other audience members (it’s not, it’s really a warning not to disturb the delicate geniuses onstage), and truthfully the only thing that makes my jaw clench more is someone’s phone going off around me during performance, or god forbid someone checking their damn texts in front of me. But every single time anything this has happened in a show I was at there was some version of the beepy thing admonishment beforehand, so how are we going to win?

Well, I guess we can accept it as a natural by-product of our age and hope that the glares from their fellow audience members is punishment enough so that a lesson is learned, and do our best to stay in the zone up there in performance. Or we can try new things to somehow adapt, as Oregon theatre company Portland Center Stage did recently by setting aside a balcony for audience members to twitter the performance. Or we can do what actress Patti LuPone does here, in this audio clip from a recent Broadway production of Gypsy, where she takes matters into her own hands with a shutterbug guest.  And the true irony of this clip is that it was caught on tape by another member of the audience with an elicit recording device. This, it seems, is the tech era we are now performing in…

Deliciously administered justice or unprofessional breakdown? You be the judge:


  1. Simon, I too am jaw-clenching frustrated at the little speech given before each performance. Except that after the speech is given, everyone turns there beepy devices off! Which leads one to believe that phones would be ringing throughout the entire show if the speech was not delivered. That would be even more frustrating!! So if one little speech stops beepy devices beeping throughout shows, I’ll take it. Important to remember not everyone goes to five shows a month like yourself. Back in my Dad’s day they would remind you not to smoke during the performance!

  2. It obviously wouldn’t work for anyone shooting for a more traditional bent, but I have a number of upcoming projects in which I’ve been toying with the idea of eliminating the pre-show announcement altogether and if a phone goes off during the show, incorporating it into the action. Of course, the stuff I’m working on is audience immersive, in which they are treated as members of the community onstage.

    This sort of disruption is only a negative if we insist it to be. It’s different in a film setting, where the work can’t adapt to the environment, but live performance provides so many more options.

    The thing that gets me is that people still chuckle every damn time there’s an annoucement about unwrapping candy. I know I’ve got an odd sense of humor, but really, that’s funny?

  3. Currently I am trying to find a solution to this for a show with a soft start. I have an actor on stage doing things from the time the audience begins to enter, so to stop them and do a pre-show announcement is just going to disrupt the flow off the top. Of course, the company wants to make announcements about cell phones, subscriptions, etc. Not sure yet what we will end up doing.

  4. That’s awesome Paul, I love that idea. At our last show I staffed a host in the lobby every night whose job it was to greet every guest before we opened the door, tell them a bit about the context of what they were walking into, politely note the cell phone thing and thank them for coming.

    And the truly annoying thing about the candy-unwrappers? The ones that sloooowly unwrap for like, 5 minutes thinking it’s quieter instead of band-aiding it. Yeesh, just stick the thing in your mouth already.

    Ben – Believe me, I know the theory behind it. There’s just something about it for me that has this stink of inviting people into our house and then telling them what our expectations are of them. It’s a kind of entitlement that’s been deemed acceptable by repetition or something, and there’s got to be alternatives. I just don’t like this acceptability in indie theatre of keeping the audience in this imaginary place where they’re supposed to be as invisible as possible. And while I don’t favour a return to the days of the audience shouting at the players, I think we have to acknowledge that the other human beings present are part of the whole show and not get so stuffy when there is any indication of their presence. This goes for the actors and the rest of the audience too.

    I know it’s a hugely contentious issue, but the hyper-awareness of it at shows stresses me right out.

  5. Hey Lois, that was the same condition off the top of our last show. I felt that the announcement would really disrupt the flow of the experience, which began as soon as you walked into the space. It was a big set which we invited the audience to explore in the individual greeting that I mentioned above before they took their seats.

    As soon as the last audience member sat the lights dimmed and the show began. It was very smooth, I loved it.

  6. I think all the actors should come out off the top of the show, breaking character, and announce that beepy devices, flashing devices and treats that are wrapped in noisy cellophane are not acceptable! The players should then wave to the people they know and strike up a brief conversation about what to expect.

    I wanna see that show!!!!!

  7. “And while I don’t favour a return to the days of the audience shouting at the players”

    I kinda think that level of audience involvement would be a pretty awesome thing to behold.

  8. Yay! This is something that my job actually let’s me solve, since I tend to be in charge of recorded announcements.

    After a lot of thinking and 100 different approaches to the problem, I can say with some certainty: the reason a preshow announcement is annoying is because it disrupts the world of the play. I often see my role here as to find a noticeable event that fits the world of the play or tone of the theater that still motivates people to check their phones.

    In touch, preshow is like floating in space. So we hear a cellphone pass by like space junk at places. It works.

    In shows where preshow music trickles from a radio, a dj or news announcement brings us in without breaking charachter or period.

    At the side project, which squeezes 30 into a tiny room and does extremely visceral work, the speech isn’t polite. It’s a deep, calm but threatening voice: “look how close you are. you don’t need to text your friends right now.”. They love it.

    This is a problem that demands creativity.

  9. This is brilliant Nick, thanks very much. I’m getting a t-shirt made for work at the company that says: “This is a problem that demands creativity”.

  10. Solved our FOH cell phone speech problem today. Woke up in the middle of the night after reading Nick’s comment with an idea, suggested it to the director, and we’re moving forward with it.

    It allows a character to make the announcement, despite being mute & fits with the world of our show rather than interrupting it. I’m quite curious to see how it works & what the response will be.

  11. I would like to suggest that you plant an actor among the audience whose cell phone goes off, have the actor answer it, turn to the audience and say “This just in!!!!They just got Bid Laden!!!…no…no…I’m sorry….It’s just an ex-girl friend drunk dialing me…Sorry everybody…Maybe I better turn this off or at least to vibrate.”

  12. That’s a show in itself, dv. Awesome.

    Maybe they could add an aside, a little too loudly: “Anybody know if this theater accepts donations at the box office or if there’s some kinda mailing list or blog I could check out about them? You know, in case I like this show, I could check out what else they’re doing. That’d be really convenient.”

  13. Ok, true story…some friends and I did a sketch-comedy show a while back that opened with a bank hold-up scene complete with stocking mask and a machine gun (“Put the money in the bag! Shut up!” “Pst! I’ve got a gun, back me up” “Let her go!” That kind of gag.), that was interrupted by a plant’s sing-song ring tone in the audience. We stopped the sketch, raised the house lights and escorted the offending guest back stage, and played a ridiculously loud burst of machine gun fire. “All right, let’s take it from the top.”

    If you’ve got a point to make, make it loud, as they say. That was ultimately one of our most complimented sketches.

    Not that I condone violence towards our audiences in any way, shape or form.

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