Theater Etiquette: Cell Phone Debate, Dilemma and Solutions


Has cell phone use in the theater really gotten worse, or are audiences and artists simply complaining more? That was my first question in the #Howlround Twitter chat on theater etiquette (full transcript) which was a follow-up to my Howlround article entitled In Praise of Cell Phone Users,

“Could it be both?” answered Shawn C. Harris.

“Ethel Merman came down off the stage and bounced a noisy audience member, so this isn’t new,” replied Patricia Milton.

“It’s worse,” said Aleisha Force. “As we get more young people into the theater, we’re getting more phones. But they’re not getting the etiquette training.”

But some people see the problem not in the cell phone use, but in the complaining about it.


In my article, I point to what feels like a ratcheting up of the number and intensity of complaints over cell phone use in the theater, and try to make a distinction between complaints by theatergoers and those by performers. I quote some performers as saying, in effect, that overcoming such distractions as cell phone use is part of their job. “The fun of performing comes from the unpredictability of the audience, including distractions,” actor Andrew Blair says.

Indeed, I was struck over the summer by how many distractions that performers at free (or low cost) outdoor shows had to put up with, from fire engine sirens to rain to the occasional crazy straggler, Cell phone use seemed very low down on the list of irritations. Why is it so much higher up on Broadway and the West End? Is it  the higher cost of the tickets? The nature of the shows? The expectations of the audience? Talk to a new generation of theater companies, and they make a point of welcoming cell phone users — and even cell phone use. “Our generation realizes we can’t fight it,” says Corley Pillsbury, a member of a company called thicket & thistle.


The essential dilemma in this intense attention on theater etiquette is that the desperate desire to lure in new audiences seems at odds with this palpable rage at those theatergoers who don’t know “the rules” of theatergoing. This insistence on etiquette is a relatively modern phenomenon.   The importance of manners in the theater seems to have increased as theater’s status as a mass entertainment has decreased.


Anthony P Andrews: Phones come out when we A) want to remember something awe inspiring or B) are bored out of our minds. Let’s aim to lose B

Patricia Milton: Also, C. Habit

Anthony P Andrews: True. But I think C happens less if we’re engaged to the point where we forget we even HAVE cell phones

Patricia Milton: But I think B gets blamed a lot for what is actually due to C.


Raymond McNeel: Americans are rapidly losing their willingness to be held captive and endure boredom even momentarily

Shannon Leigh: It’s a matter of respect. Adults shouldn’t have to be taught how to behave in public setting


Patricia Milton; Distracting light, activity, sound in the seat next to you while trying to listen to a ballad. Having to have internal debate – do I talk to the person, ask she stop, if I do will she escalate, etc.


Nick Rehberger: We need to engage and not punish!

Todd Backus: The Vampire Cowboys had a great solution: a funny short film in which a woman killed offending patrons.
Tweet Seats and the like aren’t a bad idea. It’s how people engage with entertainment, so offer that.

J Adrian Verkouteren: Is the answer to post before ticket purchase what the expectations are for a given show? The expectations (phone policy, etc.) can be printed on ticket sales forms and posted at the box office. Just make policies clear earlier

Gabriela Jirasek: I think theaters can make a difference w/ phone usage by giving audiences specific & separate opportunities to snap selfies, tweet, etc. Provide space and time pre or post show to meet actors, photograph sets, etc. Welcome audiences and reward them with special access

Julio César Guerrero 1.Staff checking on doors that cell phones are mute or off. 2.Make strong/funny announcements inside the theater

Ben Ferber: We live with these devices as an important part of our lives. Being told they’re shameful won’t register. We need to be made more comfortable silencing our phones. We need to feel it’s a positive rather than a negativeWe need to be more welcoming to our audiences and make our (culturally-based) expectations clear but reasonable.

Other Articles on the Subject

Bring the noise: live theatre needn’t be watched in respectful silence by Lyn Gardner

In defense of the quieting of the audience (and so-called passive participation) by Diane Ragsdale

Patti LuPone and Cellphone-gazi by Scott Walters

Whether Quiet or Rowdy, It’s All About Making Meaning, also Pay Attention to the Show! (Or What You Will) by Lynne Conner, (and the various books, articles and other blog posts by Lynne Conner)

e.g. from Conner: “For thousands of years Western audiences were able to consume, enjoy, process, and understand an arts experience without the kind of silent and still spectatorship we expect in most arts venues today. Despite the historical evidence to the contrary, however, contemporary understandings about arts reception—significantly tied up with rules about arts etiquette—continue to support the notion that we cannot fully understand a work of art unless we are absolutely quiet and still. “

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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