Guest Post: Thoughts on Smart Phones and Live Performance

Guest Blogger- Laura A. Shamas, LA FPI Co-Founder and National Outreach Agent

Last year in London, I saw a huge advertisement in the Underground: plain black type on a white background without any big graphics. I’ll paraphrase the content: “See this ad? Do you have any ideas about what should be written here? If so, we want to work with you. As more ads in public places become interactive with smart phones, we want to work with the idea innovators. Contact us at ——-.”

I have thought about that ad for over a year. I’m not a futurist or a tech whiz. But I am quite interested in how interactive ads in subways will affect the practice of theater.

Think there’s no connection?

Already, we have ongoing debates over the value of Tweet Seats in theatre: will they bring in more “young people”? Marketing departments certainly hope so. Some new theaters are building Tweet Seats into their venues.

Speaking for myself, in the past 5 years, I’ve been in many theaters (some at the Equity-waiver level, and some with very expensive ticket prices) only to have my viewing experience marred by the bright light of a cell phone in a row ahead of me. In a university theater in Texas, where one of my own shows was being produced, the tech crew told me that they heard every ping of texting in the theater on their headsets; it interfered with calling the cues. If you’ve seen War Horse, you know they inform you in the program that if you use your cell phone during the show, it will possibly cause harm to the performers. But when I saw it in New York at Lincoln Center, that didn’t stop someone in my row from using hers twice. Last weekend, I watched someone use his while on the front row of an L.A. Equity-waiver house of 50 seats. The bright green glow of his phone could be seen throughout the small venue. But he couldn’t seem to put it down; the ribald action on the stage immediately in front of him could not compete with his own dialogue with someone via text on his smart phone.

And that’s my point. The ping of instant gratification that one receives from texting, tweeting, or interacting with an advertisement: is it something that can be controlled? Or has our collective response to our smart phones already become “Pavlovian?” Is it the world of WALL-E already, with everyone glued to a screen? From what I’ve observed, cell phone usage in theaters is, increasingly, standard behavior. (I have definitely noticed this in movie theaters, too.) Is electronic addiction here to stay?

What do lighting designers, whose work is interrupted by the radiant glow of cell phones, think of Tweet Seats? Two lighting designers shared their thoughts with me via e-mail: Martha Mountain and Andrew F. Griffin.

Martha Mountain writes: “My knee jerk response to Tweet Seats is: oh no, it’s bad enough that people can’t turn the damn things off to watch the play as it is, don’t encourage them! But I would be prepared to accept Tweet Seats if they were BEHIND everyone else. And they have black scrim around them. The light from the smart phones is just distracting – it pulls my attention away from the stage and annoys me. I get Twitter (I think), I use it. But there is a time and a place – like the lobby and the bar afterwards.”

Andrew F. Griffin says: “I tend to agree with Martha on this. Before you get into the distraction factor of others in the audience there to watch the show, tweets capture a snapshot in time, but to capture that snapshot you need to stop paying attention to what’s happening in front of you. Tweet Seats encourage people not to pay attention to what’s happening in front of them on a level any deeper than what’s cool that I can write about in 140 characters or less every two minutes. As a result, the viewer’s experience is lessened and the impact of what is before them is diminished. Martha, of course, covered my feelings exactly when it comes to how we deal with the light and the distractions from the phones. I believe phones should be checked just like a jacket on the way into the theatre.”

As a playwright, I agree with Martha and Andrew. I want the audience to be caught up in a play completely– at every level, not involved with texting someone throughout or documenting the action of the play as it unfolds (an analytical function). We’re told by scientists that the human brain works in a hierarchical modality—meaning one function always takes precedence over another. You may think you can multi-task, but your brain is always putting one task in a primary position. That’s why you should never text and drive, for example. Don’t the theatre artists onstage, who create a show in front of you, deserve your full, undivided attention, too? To add a consumerist note to this: you are paying to see their work. Don’t you want your psyche to get the “full value” of the experience?

Yet, when I attended the TCG National Conference in 2011, I heard a prediction that in the not-so-far-away future, we’re all going to be hardwired and part of a collective brain. When I first heard that, I thought: Ha! Not me! But I’m guilty, too; and if you use a smart phone, so are you (even if you’re just checking your e-mail). If I want “encyclopedic” confirmation on a subject these days, I’ll look up a fact on my smart phone in the moment—which, in concept, is somewhat similar to being plugged into a centralized electronic brain. And yes, I’m on Twitter, too.

Is smart phone usage truly “participatory,” a way to engage during a show? Or is it more narcissistic, a way to privilege one’s own thoughts/feelings over those in/of the show? These types of questions about theater, and the new interactive chips in ads/posters (which allow us to buy products instantly via smart phones), leave me wondering about the future of live performance in the years ahead, and how changes will affect our art, our minds and our psyches.

Got an opinion or prediction on this topic? Please comment below.

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