When chubby-cheeked theater kids dream of the bright lights of Broadway, I’m guessing they don’t mean the ones emanating from the phones of 40 drooling teenage boys during On the Town.
For my boyfriend’s 29th—I mean, 26th—birthday, I took him to the acclaimed revival of the classic musical at the Lyric Theatre on Saturday night. Everything about it was divine—except for the three rows of kids seated in front of us, who arrived 15 minutes late, just in time to block our view of the stage. They proceeded to spend the rest of the show chattering and texting on their phones, and a couple even fell asleep. The situation got so out of hand that the theater had to dispatch an usher to chaperone them for the rest of the performance to keep them quiet, awake, and cellphone-free.
I suddenly felt like the old man screaming at the neighborhood kids to get off his lawn—but at least I have good company. After the audience’s cellphones disrupted a matinee of Shows for Days at the Lincoln Center last Wednesday, actress Patti LuPone (who plays Irene in the production) walked offstage during an evening performance and snatched an audience member’s phone—without breaking character.
I suddenly felt like the old man screaming at the neighborhood kids to get off his lawn—but at least I have good company.
“We work hard on stage to create a world that is being totally destroyed by a few, rude, self-absorbed and inconsiderate audience members who are controlled by their phones,” LuPone later told Playbill. “I am so defeated by this issue that I seriously question whether I want to work on stage anymore.”
LuPone isn’t the first actor to lash out at an audience member for their cellphone activity—with Daniel Craig, Hugh Jackman, and Kevin Spacey all recently calling out rude patrons for their behavior. Broadway’s cellphone issue has reached a tipping point in the past week, however, between the LuPone incident and another in which a drunk teen walked onstage to charge his phone before a performance of Hand to God. What’s even worse is that the latter offender held an entire press conference over the weekend to apologize for his behavior.
Part of this is a venue problem. In April, Madonna was famously called out for texting during the Public’s production of Hamilton, with Jonathan Groff reporting that “you couldn’t miss it from the stage.” But addressing the issue can’t simply be the job of the actors behind the productions—why didn’t the theater itself do more to stop Madge? The industry needs a zero-tolerance policy for cellphone use, such as the one that the Austin, Texas theater chain Alamo Drafthouse institutes for patrons. “If you talk or text, you will receive one warning,” their website explains. “If it happens again, you will be kicked out without a refund.”
While outright cellphone jamming is prohibited in the U.S. due to federal regulation, the New York Times’ Erik Piepenburg points out that tech may help address the problem through a new Silicon Valley startup:
Yondr, a year-old company based in San Francisco, may have a low-tech workaround: a form-fitting, tamper-proof neoprene case that patrons are handed as they enter a theater. Phones are turned off or put on vibrate, slipped into the case and locked; the patron holds the package during the show. If the audience member needs to take a call, he or she can exit the theater and have the device removed. After the show the case is returned to a hamper near the exits, like 3-D glasses at a movie theater.
After a well-received test run at a Hannibal Buress show in Napa this May, Yondr wants to roll out their services to other comedians.
— Justin Wyne (@wyne) May 17, 2015
The system certainly looks easy to use, but isn’t it sad that we need to turn in our phones like keys at a swinger party in order to keep us from being total assholes in public? Why do so many people become entitled jerks the moment their screen lights up? If there’s a special place in hell for people who text during a Broadway show—or in the dark of your local movie theater—it seems like hell is getting increasingly crowded.
Everybody knows that Americans are constantly attached to their phones, from texting at the dinner table to even sleeping next to your iPhone, as if it were a beloved family pet. But the problem appears to be reaching a breaking point.
A few weeks ago, I was on my way back from Austin at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport when I stood in line at Starbucks behind a guy who was having a heated discussion on his phone the entire time. When his order came up, he ripped the coffee right out of the barista’s hand, without looking up from his conversation or even acknowledging her existence. Everyone around scoffed at his behavior, but the barista seemed accustomed to it. She probably serves hundreds of guys like him every day.
If our phones are extensions of our personalities, they have a way of enabling all of our worst behaviors—whether that’s a tendency to be rude to customer service workers or completely ignoring everyone around us. Facebook is often criticized as an echo chamber that reflects back to us our own opinions and beliefs, and cellphone culture—at its worst—offers an extension of that, making our screens into a giant bubble that surrounds us. Instead of the “Daily Me,” it’s the “Daily I.”
It’s not just anecdotal evidence that supports the link between cellphones and narcissistic behavior. University of Maryland researchers found that prolonged exposure to one’s cellular device made them less likely to act altruistically. As Time’s Alexandra Sifferlin reports, subjects who were on their phones “were more likely to turn down volunteer opportunities and were less persistent in completing word problems, even though they knew their answers would provide money for charity.”
If there’s a special place in hell for people who text during a Broadway show—or in the dark of your local movie theater—it seems like hell is getting increasingly crowded.
One might argue that cellphones could be a confounding variable—as narcissists are more likely to be on their phones to begin with—but Sifferlin explains our devices act as more than an enabler. Sifferlin writes, “All humans have a fundamental need to connect with others—but once that need is met, say by using a cell phone, it naturally reduces our inclination to feel empathy or engage in helping behavior toward other.”
Northwestern University professor Adam Waytz agrees, arguing that humans only a certain capacity for empathy, and after that has been filled, we’re less likely to regard those around us with respect or dignity. “[S]ocial connection is sort of like eating. When you are hungry, you seek out food,” Waytz writes. “When you are lonely, you seek social connection. When the experience of social connection is elevated, we feel socially ‘full’ and have less desire to seek out other people and see them in a way that treats them as essentially human.”
But it’s not just that we deny others basic humanity—the Patti LuPone and Hand to God incidents show that we become less human as a result of our own toxic behaviors, turning into the jerk that everyone around us hates. Broadway can snatch our cellphones all they want—and they absolutely should—but we have to learn to put them away to begin with. It won’t just make for a better show. It’ll also make for a better life.
Nico Lang is the Opinion Editor for the Daily Dot.
Photo via japanexpertena.se/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)