What to do about cell phones?

By now you may have heard about the New York Philharmonic performance earlier this week which was halted due to an iPhone alarm going off in the front row. The owner of the phone continued to allow the alarm to sound for minutes, in the final movement of Mahler’s 9th Symphony, until finally the conductor stopped the performance, addressed the patron directly, and waited until the alarm was turned off before starting the movement over from the beginning.

By all accounts this is an extreme event, and it was later revealed that the patron – a devoted fan of the Philharmonic – had just been given a new phone by his employer, and didn’t even know it had an alarm on it.

But performers will regale you with numerous instances in which their performances were marred by a patron’s poor phone etiquette. I remember seeing Twelfth Night at the Guthrie Theater, and in the middle of Malvolio’s monologue (performed by Charles Keating), a cell phone went off. Keating finished the monologue, turned and pointed at the offending patron, and yelled “Answer it!”

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Charles Keating as Malvolio in Twelfth Night: whan a man in a kilt tells you to answer your phone, you do as he says.

Photo: Michal Daniel

So what’s to be done with cell phones? Most venues will remind audiences to turn off their phones before the performance begins, but for some reason that doesn’t seem to do the trick.

Christi Rodriguez Cottrell, former Executive Director at CalibanCo Theatre, shares this technique:

At CalibanCo, we always stated at the beginning of each show that if a cell phone went off, we would stop the performance. The audience was encouraged to go ahead, pull out their phone, and make sure it was turned off. In the entire time we performed, we never had a cell phone go off. I think fear of humiliation goes a long way, but it shouldn’t be so hard to get people to be respectful. That should be true of all things – dinner, doctor’s office, library, coffee with mom:-) We all had lives before cell phones. I think we can part with them for a couple of hours while we’re entertained. Nothing interrupts a suspension of disbelief like a ringtone from reality.

Performer Christopher Kehoe wonders:

I’m not sure theatres/performers can do anything outside of the curtain speech without losing some class in the process. Perhaps audience members should hold one another accountable?

And Jeff Prauer, Executive Director at the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, had this to add:

Grown-ups should take some simple lessons from their kids, or other kids if they don’t have kids of their own. In my experience, young people seem to handle cell phone etiquette much better by having their phones on vibrate almost all of the time.

So what do you think should be done? Is there a way to convince people to turn off their phones before a performance in a way that’s convincing, but not threatening?