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!”


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?

  • Virginia Mahal

    “Perhaps audience members should hold one another accountable?” I’m ready and willing to pummel anybody I can reach if they’re texting or using a cell phone or have a ringing cell phone. Just point me to them, if I can’t find them myself.

  • Wade

    Do as many movie theatres do these days, install cell phone signal blockers, and the problem will cease. A simple solution to a very annoying problem. If patrons have a problem with this, they shouldnt be at the theatre to begin with!

  • Susan

    It’s not only professional performances. At my son’s 3rd grade music concert my father-in-law’s wife’s phone rang. She pulled it out, answered it, and proceeded to talk to her daughter, during the concert. My regret is that I ignored her, when I should have turned to her and told her to hang up.

  • Eiolgj

    If it is indeed true that the patron had just gotten the phone and hadn’t (purposely) set the alarm, I can fully understand his dilemma or even not knowing that it was his phone. I’m a techy, but the first time something goes Brrrr on my phone, etc. I’m always puzzled. And apparently, blocking the cell signal wouldn’t stop an alarm from going off. Some phone alarms will even ring if they are turned off.

  • Katie

    @Jeff, kids just text the entire show which is equally, if not more annoying.

  • Phil Carlson

    On the flip side, at my daughter’s wedding to a Russian man several years ago, the best man was on his cell phone in the front row during the ceremony and my older son was about ready to throttle him when he realized the best man had been given the honored task of beaming in the groom’s parents via cell phone from Russia – they couldn’t make the trip to the U.S. Later in the ceremony the best man and cell phone were front and center as the parents offered their blessings live (via translation from the best man) to the couple and assembled guests.

  • Marianne Combs

    Wade, according to a number of online sources, cell-phone blocking is a violation of Federal law, specifically Section 333 of The Communications Act of 1934.

  • Lucy

    I try, and I say this with all honesty, to remember to shut my phone or at the very least turn the ringer off – I generally succeed at doing this. I’m trying to instill this into my daughter as well considering my brother got her first cell phone over the Christmas holidays – a little Tracfone, prepaid flip phone. Even though I was against the gift, I have to at least teach her proper cell phone etiquette. She got her first lesson over the weekend when I allowed her to take the phone to a friend’s wedding – at it started buzzing, without her knowledge, in her purse during their first dance at the reception. She got to feel the embarrassment that I think we all do when that happens for the first time.