In the U.S., the average age of a Broadway theatergoer is 44. Compare this with the U.K., where 16-to-19-year-olds are more likely to attend a theatrical performance than any other age group, and it’s obvious that American theaters are having a hard enough time engaging younger audiences without chastising them about their cellphones. Moreover, Facebook and Twitter are increasingly crucial when it comes to theaters promoting their shows: A 2010 study found that 65 percent of London theatergoers chose the shows they bought tickets for after hearing about them on social media.
Still, the solution isn’t turning a blind eye to something that can ruin a live performance for all involved. “All of it—calls, lights, texts—can muddy the experience,” says Kimberly Gilbert, an actor in Washington, D.C. “What happens [in the theater] affects the journey, the art of the moment. I think it’s happening more and more because we’re more comfortable sharing our attention now between a person and a screen.” In July, LuPone released a statement saying, “I am so defeated by this issue that I seriously question whether I want to work on stage anymore.” (As The Wall Street Journal has noted, it isn’t just audiences—actors, musicians, and conductors alike tend to be as addicted to their phones as regular folk, albeit without actually taking them onstage.)
Part of the magic of live theater is that it exists in a space that is totally removed from the outside world. Constantin Stanislavski advised actors to “never come into the theater with mud on your feet … Check your little worries, squabbles, petty difficulties with your outside clothing—all the things that ruin your life and draw your attention away from your art—at the door.” For theater to be transcendent—to be the magic circle where people learn about “the brevity of human glory,” as Iris Murdoch put it—people have to commit to being fully present during a show, and to focusing all their attention on the performance at hand. Sometimes the performance in question merits such attention; sometimes it doesn’t. But the minimum required from audience members is to sit quietly and not do anything to distract actors or spectators from the action.
While theaters—and audience members, who tend to quietly tolerate bad behavior—can certainly do more to enforce standards of acceptable behavior during performances, perhaps the more effective policeman is the one everyone’s paid considerable money to see. If Taylor Swift can use her star power to coerce the most powerful technology company in the world to change its policies, maybe Benedict Cumberbatch can encourage a new kind of etiquette among rabid superfans and casual theater attendees alike.
A few years ago, when the actor Drew Cortese was performing in a play at the Shakespeare Theatre in D.C., an audience member's iPod started playing music shortly into the second half of the show. After several minutes, and right before a pivotal speech, Cortese asked the audience if the person responsible wanted to turn it off. Eventually, a woman confessed that it was hers, and she didn’t know how to silence it. “The audience applauded when I got ready to resume the play, not because of how I handled that moment, but because it was so clear that we had all shared that experience together,” Cortese says.
“On the stage, an actor—especially a star—can hold incredible moral suasion,” says Marks. “Their reaction has to be commensurate with the infraction. But shaming by the person in the spotlight, of the person effectively stealing it, may be the most potent instrument of enforced decency of all.”