Broadway is locking up cellphones because audience members can't control themselves

We are living in an increasingly loud and distracted society that shows flagrant disregard for the boundary between the theater hall and the street.
Image: A company called Yondr has developed soft pouches that keep people from accessing their devices during shows
A company called Yondr has developed soft pouches that keep people from accessing their devices during showsCourtesy of Yondr; NBC News
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By Bryan Reesman

Last month, I caught a 10 p.m. performance of the new Broadway musical “Freestyle Love Supreme.” As I was preparing to walk down the aisle to grab my seat, an usher asked me to verify that my phone was silent or off and then placed it in a foam pouch. At first, I thought she was confiscating it. But after she sealed the pouch via an electronic device, she explained that I could hold onto it and have it released from captivity after the show.

It initially felt frustrating not to be able to snap a pre-show picture of the stage. I couldn’t check texts or the internet. So I actually held my head up, looked around, perhaps perused my Playbill more intently. And you know something? I was happy.

If it’s that hard for you to make it through a performance without looking at your email or texts or waiting on a call, you should ask yourself why you’re in the theater to begin with.

Theatergoers have always faced annoyances: a patron behind you kicking your seat because of limited legroom, someone at your side talking during a performance, or the occasional Fidgety Fred in front of you who keeps jerking around. But cellphones have become insufferable – 96 percent of American adults now own one – creating an increasingly loud and distracted society that shows flagrant disregard for the boundary between the theater hall and the street.

The whole point of going to the theater is to be immersed in another world – the one that’s on stage, not the one that’s in the audience. If it’s that hard for you to make it through a performance without looking at your email or texts or waiting on a call, you should ask yourself why you’re in the theater to begin with.

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But since so many people seem incapable of that level of self-reflection, and self-restraint, it has now fallen to the theaters themselves to enforce the rules of respect at live productions. Helping them is a company called Yondr, which has developed soft pouches that keep people from accessing their devices during shows. (Their motto? “Be here now.”) It’s about time.

As someone who has been attending theater regularly for the last 15 years, I've experienced an increasing number of disrupted performances. The most heinous was during the musical “Chaplin” when an elderly man’s phone alarm went off, but he didn't think it was his. Perhaps he was hard of hearing. For the first 20 minutes, this irritating sound pierced our ears while ushers frantically sought the source of the disturbance. Finally, someone next to the man demanded his phone, then shut off the alarm.

Indeed, this is not simply another thing to blame on millennials. Some of the biggest offenders are boomers (sorry, guys), and not just because many of them (and not a few Gen Xers) can’t figure out how to silence their phones. At my performance of “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” several women over 60 kept sneaking photos during the show. (This may only be a minority of ticket-holders, but they mess things up for the rest of us.)

About 25 years ago, a major movie critic noted that home video had not brought the movie-going experience home; rather, it brought the home-viewing experience to the movies. Ditto exponentially for theater. Many people act like they're in their living room, not as if they're witnessing a performance with hundreds of other people. It’s a self-centered phenomenon.

And a self-defeating one. The other night, my girlfriend was briefly pulled on stage by the actor Campbell Scott to assist in the feast-building sequence of “A Christmas Carol.” Had I been trying to capture the moment with my phone, I would’ve missed it. No regrets.

Performers have been fighting back against audience rudeness. Actors Joshua Henry and Patti LuPone have snatched phones from unruly people. Lin-Manuel Miranda barred Madonna from coming backstage at a performance of “Hamilton” after her constant texting during the show.

And there’s been plenty of online-based pushback, too. Jarrod Spector, co-star of “The Cher Show,” tweet-shamed Kanye West for texting during opening night. (West later apologized.) Audra McDonald lashed out via Twitter at the person who took a photo (with flash!) of her nude scene in “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.”

Such photo and video bootlegging of intellectual property is likely the main reason the Yondr pouches emerged for “Freestyle Love Supreme” and the Dave Chapelle show earlier this year, the first Broadway production to have them. (Chapelle is an investor in Yondr.) But a good side effect of the pouches on the off-Broadway run of “Freestyle” was that people paid more attention.

Perhaps there’s also a growing recognition that the theater shouldn’t be a place of combat between the audience and the cast. It's about being a uniter, not a divider, right? Cellphones are the divider.

The theater shouldn’t be a place of combat between the audience and the cast. It's about being a uniter, not a divider, right? Cellphones are the divider.

Yes, a few people are doctors, and a few are parents worried about emergencies. But at the risk of sounding insensitive, I must ask: If there is that much concern over what could happen outside the theater during a performance, why be there to begin with? For all I know, one of my friends or family members might have an emergency, too. But we can’t let that chronic risk take precedence over everything else.

After I retrieved my phone post-“Freestyle,” the process was quick and painless, even in a 766-seat theater. I asked one of the ushers how people had been responding to this requirement. She replied that some people were leery at first, but they were basically complying.

Thank goodness. I know you spent $100 to $200 for a ticket and think you’ve paid for the privilege of having your phone. But guess what? So did everyone else. That steep price doesn't give you the right to be a jackass. If it takes policing the theater to get you to understand that — and allow the rest of us to enjoy the performance — so be it.