Enforcing Silence: What’s at Stake with Cellphone-gazi

Patti Lupone
Patti LuPone speaks to the audience.

Last month, I set off a minor storm with my article Patti LuPone and Cellphone-gazi, in which I suggested that the idea of the passive audience who remained silent out of “respect” for the actors work was actually not the norm throughout theater history, and may not even be a particularly great thing for our current theater.

This idea certainly wasn’t original with me. Lawrence Levine, in his excellent book Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, explored in vivid detail the class warfare that was at the root of what he called the sacralization of the arts. And Lynne Conner, in her chapter “In and Out of the Dark: A Theory about Audience Behavior from Sophocles to Spoken Word” in Steven J. Tepper’s and Bill Ivey’s book Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America’s Cultural Life, brilliantly described the “silencing of Twentieth Century audiences.” In fact, I feel that I should publicly apologize to Ms. Conner, because when I opened my copy of Engaging Art after Diane Ragsdale, in her response to my article, mentioned Ms. Conner’s essay, I found that I had heavily underlined and annotated it when it was first published. Clearly, her ideas stuck in my memory, and I apologize for the lack of attribution. I was particularly struck by her distillation of the “public message” concerning the sacralization of the arts: “Sophisticated audiences do not interfere with great art, and unsophisticated people should confine themselves to other spaces.”

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If you scan through the comments on my article, or were able to follow any of the literally thousands of conversations that ensued on Facebook, you will see that this public message is still being sent loud and clear, and nearly verbatim. Indeed, my first commenter, Sandra Brogan, pretty much nailed it: “You are an idiot,” she began. “If people can’t be quiet in a theater then they need to stay home, so the rest of us can enjoy the show.” Indeed. (And exactly how is calling someone an idiot not an example of the very rudeness being decried?)

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A new wrinkle appeared in this argument that concerned the cost of tickets. Some arts patrons insisted that, having paid a lot of money to see a Broadway show, they were entitled to determine not only their own behavior, but the behavior of everyone else in the auditorium, an idea I found particularly baffling.

Don’t ask. / via

Then there were the commenters who asserted that the silent audience represented the culmination of historical progress, the pinnacle of sophistication. Indeed, in response to my note that Shakespeare’s audience was particularly rowdy, actor Terry Kinney pointed out, “And in Shakespeare’s day they also probably played polo with the heads of vanquished enemies, if we are waxing historical sentiment.” A Google search failed to reveal evidence for such a pastime, although did uncover the Afghan tradition of playing polo with a dead headless goat.

In response to my argument that Richard Wagner’s move to turn the lights off in the auditorium was a part of the silencing of the audience, Erik Abbott, who works at the Actors Repertory Theater in Luxembourg, asserted:

There are all sorts of things that we have now that the western theatre of centuries ago didn’t: electric lighting, microphones, directors, women on stage, sanitary indoor bathrooms, unions, musical comedies, air conditioning, synthetic fabrics, costumes that can reflect the period of the play rather than just what the actors personally own, generally reliable fire safety, graduate degrees in theatre studies (and the attendant endless theorising), David Mamet, etc.

So… I guess this means we should see the dimming of the lights and silencing of the audience as inevitable progress toward graduate degrees and David Mamet? We might want to rethink that. Regardless, following that argument, I might also point out that Western theater centuries ago didn’t have cell phones, either, so shouldn’t we see this is part of the natural progression toward perfection? If we can’t question dark theaters or David Mamet, why can we object to cell phones?

I must admit, things got really weird for a while. My theater historian brain exploded when Graham Friend Stokes questioned my “selective” ideas concerning theater history by writing, “Sorry (kinda),” he began, “but as a theatre historian how can you ignore the fact that Greek theaters were specifically constructed to essentially channel the light of the sun at the stage, and were timed to maximize the light *on the stage*, not the audience?” Sorry (kinda), but, um, no. I don’t know what teacher told you that, but you ought to ask for your tuition money back.


But I digress. The point is that feelings ran high on this issue, because everyone who commented cared about the theater. It was important to them, and so anything that questioned the status quo was seen as a threat, as is usually the case when some unacknowledged assumption is questioned. It was sort of fun for a while, but then it got disturbing. As the discussion continued, I was reminded of cartoonist Walt Kelly’s immortal line from his Pogo comic strip: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” By which I mean that those who currently love and attend theater, and those who love and work in it, for all their admirable qualities, may be the biggest barriers to necessary change.

Over the years, I have participated in many, many convenings of theater people at which we wrung our collective hands about the 21st century audience. We dreamt about a more diverse audience drawn from different ages, races, sexualities, classes. We assert that such diversity would bring vibrancy to the theater, and a kind of liveliness that has been missing for decades.

But the answer as to why the theater audience has become so homogeneous is dramatically illustrated by the conversations that followed my article: we want a diverse audience as long as “those people” behave like “us”.

In other words, as long as they assimilate.

rudeBut if they don’t — if they insist on bringing their drinks into the theater, or they get up during the show, or talk to their seat mate, or (heaven forbid) their cell phone rings — well, if they do that, then they should just stay home lest they “ruin” my experience.

Theater people love to say that we are more tolerant than average, more open to other cultures, more welcoming to the outsider. Gosh, we’re swell. But our professed beliefs don’t really seem to match up with our actual behavior. We say we want more plays by female playwrights or playwrights of color…but year after year, we just can’t seem to find the courage to program any — no plays in the pipeline! We say that we want everybody to have a chance to experience theater, but year after year we defend the fact that the lion’s share of funding goes to the same large, mainstream, urban theaters. We say everyone is welcome in the theater, but once the non-theatergoing spectator arrives we make sure to make him or her toe the line as far as etiquette is concerned. We say we want more diversity on our stages, but when August Wilson rejected colorblind casting in favor of greater commitment to race-specific theaters and plays, we shouted him down. We roll our eyes at the aging, wealthy audience members, but we stack our boards with exactly those people.

We simply don’t walk our talk. Full stop.

The fact is that theater has become a conservative art form — not necessarily in terms of content (although even that is being worn down), but in terms of what really matters: the culture surrounding the art form. We work very, very hard to make sure that the dysfunctional system remains intact. Ultimately, the issue of cellphones in the theater is trivial, but illustrative of the problem. My article was not defending texting in the theater, or chatting on cellphones, but rather was commenting on our stubbornness in holding on to rigid rules of etiquette that make noise of almost any kind in a theater a reason for condemnation and even public shaming.

To return again to Lynn Conner, the ramifications of the silencing of the audience is deeply serious for the future of our art form. In a recent post entitled “Whether Quiet or Rowdy, It’s All About Making Meaning” on her blog We the Audience, Conner argues:

The problem with the engineered quieting of the audience that began in the late 19th century is not that the audience was forced to be literally quiet while experiencing the arts. The problem is that because of the sacralization of culture that accompanied the quieting process, the audience’s interpretive agency was quieted. In other words, when audiences became physically quiet they also were edged out of the meaning making operation.


Audience sovereignty over meaning and value was actively discouraged, turning what had long been a three-dimensional arts experience—witnessing an arts event/object and having the opportunity to participate in the articulation of its meaning and value—into a two-dimensional encounter often lacking the depth and pleasure of social interpretation. And so they became disengaged. By and large, they have stayed that way. That’s at least one reason why we can’t fill our concert halls, theaters and museums anymore.

I would argue that until we address the problem that Conner describes, we will be unable to diversify our stages, our casts or our audiences; and the downward slide will continue unabated.

Is that really what we want?

  • JM

    “My article was not defending texting in the theater, or chatting on cellphones, but rather was commenting on our stubbornness in holding on to rigid rules of etiquette that make noise of almost any kind in a theater a reason for condemnation and even public shaming.”

    So you made fun of producers and performers with a legitimate complaint to make your point about the metaphorical ‘noise’ you find more irksome? (Yes as a House Manager and performer I felt made fun of and condescended to)

    How many essays and ‘thought’ pieces have been wrung out of the Lapone incident that have nothing to do with teh issue at hand? Audience diversity is not the issue at hand and if it is writing another damn essay about it instead of actively working to rectify it from whatever production entity you work with will do exactly zero.

    The issue is the audience that did want to see the show and did buy tickets and DIDNT turn off their phone or DID think it just fine to use them during the show. Yes they are our patrons, our customers; but the “customer is always right” ends when you are disrupting the other customers experience and the employees trying to produce that experience.

    You laughed loudly at the joke, you cheered the hero, you shouted to Othello during the bedroom seen “DONT DO IT!” (I was in that audience cause I knew the cast and both audience and cast thought it was great), you want to make sure your husbands knows whats going on by explaining each scene to him cause hes hard of hearing…well ok I just hope youre not seated behind me. All of thats fantastic, amazing, go for it. Youre at a concert or deliberately audience interactive piece of theater whoop it up, get engaged let us know youre out there. Wed rather you didnt take pictures or video (the Unions and copyright holders come down on us about it) but at least it means your into the show

    But you don’t walk barefoot into the restaurant that has a sign that says “No Shoes No Service”, you don’t try on teh bathing suits at the shop without underwear on, you don’t scream and yell in libraries and you DONT ENGAGE WITH YOUR DEVICE DURING THE SHOW! Asking for politeness for teh benefit of all is not “othering”. If the shows so unengaging that youd rather talk on your phone about your dental appointment (yes that really happened), text emojis and play candy crush (yes that really happened) leave the damn auditorium before Im asked by another patron to talk to you. We might even give you youre money back.

    Its etiquette that movie theaters (the far more democratic of arts purveyors by price and subject matter) ask for, how are we being so very exclusive to ask the same?

    • JM — While it was not my primary intention to make fun of and condescend to House Managers and performers, I will admit that I have a great deal of scorn for those whose focus on enforcing the status quo prevents them from seeing the ramifications of what they are enforcing. In other words, I would argue that the issues ISN’T about cellphones but about an entrenched group of privileged people who feel they have the right to tell others how they can and can’t respond to a piece of theatre.
      I’m sure, as a House Manager, you do have to deal with patrons requesting that you “do something” about other patrons who are doing something they don’t like. I spent several years as a House Manager, too, and I know what a pain that is. My point — which seems to be overlooked by almost all of my critics — is that theater as an art form has not benefitted from these rules; that the plays have become increasingly homogenous and bloodless; that the audience has become increasingly homogeneous and bloodless; and the theater has become increasingly irrelevant and elitist.
      And here’s the kicker — the other thing that often is ignored — it wasn’t always like that. In fact, this insistence on a fussy etiquette more appropriate to the church or library was manufactured in the 20th century by the wealthy so that they didn’t have to hang out with the loud low-class immigrants at the theatre. To borrow Peter Brook’s label, they intentionally created Deadly Theatre as a way of making the theatre less popular. Mission accomplished.
      The question now is: how’s that working for you?
      I would argue it’s not working at all. That theater is becoming marginalized and drained of life. You may disagree, which is fine, of course. But don’t get all blustery about how people ought to be able to turn their phones off for 2 hours. That’s not the point. Cell phones are simply an example of a certain system in action. You can call it politeness, but what is defined as polite is controlled by are certain group of privileged people.
      Let me give you another example of this in action: America says, “We welcome people from different cultures — it’s what makes cities like New York so vibrant,” after which we say, “But if you want to be American, learn English.” In other words, we like different kinds of people as long as they make every effort to be like us.
      Same here.
      We talk and talk about wanting a larger audience, one comprised of different races and classes and levels of education, but we only want them if they follow the rules we set and do their damndest to assimilate to our values. I’m reminded of the musical “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.”
      If we don’t alter this dynamic, I sincerely believe — and I speak as a theater historian by trade — that theater will continue to wither. And if I had to predict, I’d say that inertia and privilege will win out, and the downward spiral will continue.

  • The one thing I haven’t really seen mentioned in all this (though often alluded to) is that the shift in the audience dynamic has also created a shift in the performance dynamic as well. The expectation for the audience to be serious has resulted in the performer wanting to be taken seriously.

    At the same time audiences were raucous and entertaining prostitutes in the box seats, actors were often paying for a cheering section, purposely trying to upstage each other, etc.

    Yes, the dynamic is a bit staid, but I would propose that any attempt to change it be done thoughtfully and carefully. I know that no one is really suggesting a return to the days of yore. I don’t think there is any doubt, given the interactions one finds online, that both audiences and performers would jump at the opportunity to do something outlandish just to call attention to themselves if it appeared permission was regularly being given.

    I would also submit that there is quite a bit of evidence that people yearn for high quality product given the attention paid to shows like Mad Men, Orange is the New Black, Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, etc and the fact so many media outlets are scrambling to create similar hits.

    • I would say that your characterization of theater in the past is inaccurate. The idea that somehow actors and audience in the past didn’t care about anything except attracting attention and upstaging each other is extremely inaccurate. Like any audience, people in the past went to the theater to hear a story. But they felt they could hear a story without silence. Actors felt they could tell a story without a silent auditorium. In other words, norms were different — not worse, different. The idea that somehow we have achieved a superior experience because there is so-called respectful politeness is, in my opinion, arguable.

      • In terms of audiences attracting attention, I was mainly thinking of Richard Butsch’s The Making of the American Audience where he cites examples of audiences crowd surfing between acts, climbing on stage and crowding actors so they couldn’t move, demanding the same actor repeat a scene multiple times, etc.

        In one place where Edwin Forrest was made to apologize, he characterizes it as “This sudden change from jeers to cheers, which often occurred, indicates that the pit was more concerned with recognition of their rights as an audience than with the particular incident or actor.”

        As for the actors upstaging or trying to draw attention themselves, I was thinking of a piece I read which I can’t find at the moment, where actors would pay people to coordinate cheering sections for them.

        From what I read in Butsch, it sounded like even by the norms of the time, some of these behaviors were viewed as undesirable.

        He does go one to mention as I believe Levine does in Highbrow/Lowbrow, that the upper classes started to self-segregate and create places like the opera just for themselves.

        There was recently a sort of summary of how the general tension between highbrow and lowbrow evolved and how it manifests today in Pacific Standard – http://www.psmag.com/books-and-culture/william-shakespeare-culture-war-highbrow-lowbrow-94733

        • Ah! Yes, you’re exactly right. The audiences in the 19th century and earlier felt (and I would say rightly so) that the actors were there to serve them, not the other way around. So if they liked your monologue or your song, they would stop the play and insist you do it again. For a contemporary audience, this is, of course, unthinkable but then it was not only possible but a sign of appreciation. Levine talks about audiences stopping operas to make the soprano sing an aria again, or even to sing other songs not in the opera. Similarly, if they didn’t like what you were doing, they could make an actor’s life hell. But I would emphasize: this was because actors were there to serve the audience, to give them the things they wanted. Today, actors — especially well-known actors — think the opposite: that the audience exists to serve THEM; that they have the right to control the audience’s time. Actors today believe that the audience should RESPECT them. It wasn’t always like that, and again, I’m not certain the change has served the theater well.
          Of course, Edwin Forrest was in the midst of the imbroglio occurring between his fans and those of English actor William Charles McCready that led to the Astor Place Riot. The two actors had become emblematic of different political orientations. At that point, yes, it was no longer about the play. But I would say that situation was a bit extraordinary.
          You are also right that some people in the audience didn’t like the behavior of the immigrants, but they were outnumbered. Today, the tables turned. Again I ask, is this change for the better? For some things, of course, it is — for certain kinds of plays, especially realism which coincided with the change in attitudes. The common people migrated to the melodrama, which accommodated thrived upon an active relationship with the audience; and the elite audience gravitated to Ibsen and other playwrights whose plays were chamber pieces that required quiet focus. I’ve recently begun directing Fornes’ “Fefu and Her Friends,” which absolutely will not accommodate audience interaction or things like texting during the show, and I will do my utmost to make expectations clear. But my question is not whether people should be “allowed” to have their cell phones go off during a performance of “Fefu” or Ibsen or Chekhov or whatever, but rather whether our expectation of a silent audience leads to a dominance of certain types of theatre that simply don’t take advantage of what is most unique to theater: the actor-audience relationship. The actors in a movie can be unaffected by an audience far better than any actors in the theater can. Film has us beat in ignoring the audience. But film can’t compete with theater when it comes to the possibilities that come with actors and spectators being in the same room together.
          So to my mind, theatre won’t be made better if we figure out how to keep cell phones from going off, but rather it will be made better when plays and written and actors are trained to take advantage of the existence of actors and audience together in one space and time.

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  • Rgl

    Maybe we should have a look at Kant and his categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.”
    I would expect that from everybody else in the audience. Insofar I would not argue that I deserve “good” behaviour – and I would love to experience the art undisturbed.

    I have basically stopped going to the big cinemas because the constant popcorn crunching out of buckets during the whole movie is so much getting to me that I cannot enjoy the movie anymore – or the live streaming of St. John’s Passion, for that matter.

    • Rgl — Obviously when it comes to Kant’s imperative at the movie theater, most popcorn crunchers would be quite content with others having the right to crunch popcorn as well. When spectators went to the Globe, they expected that there was going to be a noisy crowd. I’m not sure how many more ways I can say this: the idea that you have a right to experience art “undisturbed” is a 20th-century creation based on class and it was uncommon throughout theater history and, I would argue, has led to a diminution in the popularity of theater as an art form.

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  • PigManFan

    1. The theater owner has property rights and can make any rules that you may voluntarily agree to or not. You can make a theater that is “talking allowed” or one that is “quiet please.” It is the owner’s choice. You may advocate for certain rules and trade with certain types of theaters with your preferred rules (or absence of rules), of course. You may not initiate force (or threaten its use) to coerce an owner into obeying your preferred rules.

    2. Vague terms like “spaces” and “status quo” obliterate the importance of property rights.

    3. Related to that, a specific theater is not “ours” or a “public theater.” The term “public” or “society” or “open” has no coherent meaning. In practice, it means “whichever individuals have representatives of the non-concept of the people.”

    4. Whether you recognize the deep and vast influence of Marxist dialectic on the humanities or not, please note this article’s vague terms as mentioned above, the antagonism against the actual property owner (regardless of the demands of non-owner “stakeholders”), and the unshakable faith in privileges (i.e. classes) are consistent with accepting Marxist premises. Consider the possibility that individuals have rights that the group can not vote away. Consider the possibility that as an individual, you self-evidently think with your own individual mind–a hive brain doesn’t do your thinking for you.