Who and What Belongs In a Theater?

The other day I went to the ballet (it was NYCB’s New Combinations Evening, which, by the way, was pretty amazing, with Mauro Bigonzetti’s Vespro being by personal favorite). But the audience got me thinking just as much as the dancing did.

As the house lights went off and the performance began, there was one person in the front of the section still on his iPhone. Which is annoying. But the reaction was worse.

A few people started whisper-yelling (getting less whisper-y with each comment) “get off,” “turn it off,” “now” (prompting some other people to start chiming in with “just shut up!”) and then the real kicker: “Idiot! You don’t even belong in a theater!”

That one made me cringe a little. Because I don’t like to think that anyone doesn’t belong in a theater. Looking back how racial, class, and gender exclusion has been enforced upon theater audiences throughout history, the assumption that only certain people belong in a theater is a pretty loaded one. And given how difficult it is in current economic conditions to get enough butts in seats to financially sustain a performing arts organization, along with the public perception that classical art forms especially are elitist, no one who actually likes ballet should want it to become more exclusive. Plus, if we want to claim that concert dance is an important part of our shared culture and humanity, and something that enhances quality of life, then excluding people from that sounds pretty problematic.

That said, I don’t want to be blinded by your phone when I’m trying to watch Sara Mearns. We can say that certain behaviors don’t belong in a theater, right?

I’ll admit that have a little trouble putting my phone down. Sometimes it’s a crutch to keep me from the enlightening boredom of being alone with my own thoughts. And sometimes its a useful tool that keeps me connected with all the wonderful people I have met throughout my life, regardless of geography. And sometimes it’s just fun. I like getting little red, numbered notifications. They make me excited. It’s classical conditioning, okay?

But I can put it away for a few hours to watch an amazing performance that I paid to see.

This is the part where most nostalgic dance writers will lament that today’s instantaneous, remote communication technologies have left audiences unable to appreciate the more pure and nuanced communication of live, moving bodies. I’m not sure how true this is, at least for a company like NYCB. During the performance, I saw a fast-paced series of images, all fleeting before my eyes and leaving me only with an impression of the moment and my response to it. That’s basically what Snapchat is, right?

Now maybe I should give the phone-using audience member the benefit of the doubt and assume that his behavior was due to some emergency situation rather than a lack of respect (wouldn’t want to make the fundamental attribution error). And by that reasoning, the person who made the “idiot” comment was probably just really upset that his performance experience was being compromised and didn’t actually mean to make a statement about exclusivity in arts audiences.

But the relationship between live performance and high-tech communication truly is a tense one that deserves some discussion.

Maybe if we realized that these types of communication are not all that different–that there is at least some similarity in your emotional and visceral response to a breathtaking partnering section and a new text from a crush; that the essence of human communication spans across mediums–we could find a little more peace and respect. If the phone-hooked crowd knew that live performance is not such a foreign world, that they do belong in a theater, maybe they would be comfortable enough to put away their information security blankets (phones) and take in the performance.

What do you think? How should we respond to phones in theaters?


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