Live performances learn to live with noisy phones

A recent concert-stopping cell phone at Lincoln Center made news around the world, leading many to look again at measures to curtail audience disturbances in live performances.
A recent concert-stopping cell phone at Lincoln Center made news around the world, leading many to look again at measures to curtail audience disturbances in live performances. (Brendan Smialowski, Getty Images)

It was the cellphone heard 'round the world.

A bouncy marimba ring tone on an iPhone erupted during the final soft, almost unbearably poignant minutes of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 9 at a recent New York Philharmonic concert in Lincoln Center.

Music director Alan Gilbert finally reached his tipping point. He stopped the orchestra and turned to face a seemingly oblivious patron. The man, speaking anonymously to The New York Times as "Patron X," later said he had put his newly acquired iPhone on silent but had no idea an alarm had been set on it.

When the offending device finally stopped, the conductor tried again to bring Mahler's wrenching 80-minute symphony to a proper end.

While cellphone nuisances are commonplace wherever people gather for plays, operas and concerts, they rarely lead to a drastic mid-performance suspension. So the story of Mahlerius interruptus spread rapidly on the blogosphere and, even amid a busy news cycle, was picked up by mainstream media on several continents.

The issue of audience members interfering with art is an old one. Candy wrappers, talking, coughing, whistling hearing aids — those used to be the primary culprits. Now it's the cellphone, and that means not just calls, but texting, emails, calendar reminders and, of course, alarms.

"Almost everyone has one of these things, so the law of averages is that they're going to go off," said Paul Meecham, president and CEO of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

BSO music director Marin Alsop can attest to that. A few years ago at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, she took an unusual step because of an unexpected ring.

"I think it was the start of a movement of [Berlioz's] 'Symphonie Fantastique,' and just as I gave the downbeat, I heard a phone go off," the conductor said. "That can really ruin the mood, so I thought, let's start again. But it was subtle — no speeches from me."

Only this season at the Meyerhoff did the BSO adopt the widespread policy of making a pre-performance announcement reminding people to silence their electronic devices.

"Call me old-fashioned," Meecham said, "but I've always thought the performance starts as you walk into the hall. It's about the atmosphere inside, then the hush before the music begins. Instead, you hear this voice saying, 'Ladies and gentlemen, please turn off your cellphones.' Maybe I'm the only person who thinks that destroys the atmosphere. But I have to get over that."

As for destroying the atmosphere during a performance, few things rankle more than phones, even when they make their presence felt in moments less tense than the finale of Mahler's Ninth Symphony.

Some performers take the nuisance in stride. At a BSO concert in 2010, for example, the soloist in Schumann's Piano Concerto, Louis Lortie, responded to a persistently chiming phone during the pause between movements by imitating the ring tone on the piano. It broke up the audience.

Other situations are not so benign, especially when it comes to the theater.

"It's Murphy's Law," said Mike Schleiffer, production manager at Center Stage. "During the critically important monologue, when there's a dramatic pause, that's where the cellphone will ring. I remember it happening at the Public Theater in New York, where a phone rang for what seemed like 45 times. The actor finally just put his hands on his hips and said, 'Are you going to answer that?'"

Vincent Lancisi, artistic director of Baltimore's Everyman Theatre, witnessed a double dose of pregnant pauses that became less pregnant during a performance of "Time Stands Still" on Broadway. Actress Laura Linney had two major scenes that involved long, tension-building silences; phones went off in each.

"Laura said the actors had talked about this early on in rehearsal," Lancisi said, "so they could decide what to do not if, but when, a cellphone goes off. Their policy was it would be up to the actor speaking at the time. You could hold until the ringing stopped and then continue, or just battle through it. Laura employed both of those techniques that night."

Performers at Everyman likewise have learned to live with the ringing, Lancisi said. "The days of actors screaming at their audience are gone. There are just too many phones," he said.

Schleiffer remembers an instance at Center Stage when an angry response from the stage actually fit into a performance of David Mamet's "Speed the Plow," during some dialogue laced, in typical Mamet fashion, with profanity.

"When a phone rang, one of the actors turned and said, 'Oh, f- -,' right at where the phone was coming from," Schleiffer said. "That wasn't really so outside the mood of the play, but everyone got it."

In an effort to reduce the number of phone violations, venues have been adding to the usual pre-curtain announcement and printed notice in the program. At some places, turn-them-off pleas are repeated after intermissions, since so many people get back on their phones the first chance they get. Lancisi said that Everyman would probably start making such reminders.

On Broadway, it is common to see ushers moving through the aisles yelling out the request, sometimes holding up cellphones for added effect.

Of course, the repetition of the message, performance after performance, is akin to the emergency instructions flight attendants repeat by rote.

"If you make it a drone, people may ignore it," said Jeff Daniel, president of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, home to the Hippodrome.

Several theatrical shows handle the phone announcements themselves, often in cheeky fashion. At the Hippodrome this season, for example, a cast member of "La Cage aux Folles," in full drag, entertained the audience with pre-show banter that incorporated a kicker about cellphones.

For a 2010 production of "Our Town" at Everyman, the actor portraying the Stage Manager led into his opening lines with an in-character, folksy admonition about phones.

But more often than not, phones still ring, performance after performance.

"No one does these things intentionally," Alsop said. "That's what we have to remember. We have to try to be kind and humane."

Daniel agrees.

"When we open wide our doors, there's a higher probability that we will get people who don't have experience with theater etiquette," he said.

Whenever the subject of disruptive phones arises, someone is bound to suggest jamming all signals, magically eliminating the menace and the need for any speeches.

"This idea comes up, but, bottom line, it's against the law," said Matt Nodine, chief of staff and legal adviser in the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission. "There's a federal law against the marketing, selling and use of a jammer. There are no exceptions."

The law describes jamming as "an unacceptable risk to public safety by potentially preventing the transmission of emergency communications."

For many theaters, there would be a down side even if they dared resort to surreptitious jamming. "For our pop shows, we use wireless technology for microphones," Meecham said, "and they wouldn't work if a jammer were used."

With a fine as high as $11,000 a day for violations of the anti-jamming law, performing arts venues will doubtless continue living with the untimely sounds of cellphones.

Besides, there are always other annoyances.

"I find cellphones less upsetting than watch alarms that beep on the hour," Alsop said. "I will be in the middle of a piece and hear that beep-beep and think, 'Oh, it's 10 o'clock. I've got to speed up.' I don't know how people live like that."

Then there are the people who use otherwise silent phones to email, text or surf the Web during a performance.

"The light of a cellphone in a darkened theater seems to glow as bright as a house on 34th Street in December," said Kate Murphy, stage manager at Center Stage. "I don't think it's too much to ask people to set aside 'Words with Friends' until the house lights come up after the show."

Meanwhile, for those audience members seeking a way to avoid becoming the next Patron X, Ellen Peters, a mezzo-soprano who sings in the Opera Company of Philadelphia chorus, has an intriguing approach.

In addition to using an Android app that sets her phone to silent whenever her calendar tells it that she's busy — attending a concert, for example — and double-checking that silence at each performance she attends, Peters has a backup system that incorporates the one audience nuisance that will never go away.

"I've recorded my own cough and set it as my ring tone," Peters said. "It works quite well. I recognize it as my cough, but people around me don't notice anything unusual. Perhaps it's overkill, but at least I'll never deserve Alan Gilbert's glare."