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?)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?