Unplugging the show-stoppers

PORTFOLIO

Switch off the cell phones and connect with the performance, not your best friend or business partner.

Portfolio

June 18, 2000|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra played softly, softer, then fell silent for the soloist, and the rich, velvety notes of a single cello soared from the stage and seemed to hover in the air. Yo-Yo Ma was playing Tchaikovsky's Andante cantabile from the String Quartet No. 1; as the music swelled, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes.

I very nearly did the same thing. Ma's playing was doing what music does at its most sublime. Like a magic carpet, it was lifting me and presumably, those around me, out of real life and transporting us gently to another place. Somewhere without traffic. Without office politics. Without telephones or e-mail.

Or so I thought. From the back of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, a nastily tinny trickle of notes erupted. Reality crashed right back into place.

A cell phone! It wasn't merely ringing but was playing a pale electronic rendition of something in a minor key, something sounding vaguely like a Bach fugue. Ma showed no sign whatsoever of having heard the intrusive noise. We, in the audience, however, were neither as well-focused or disciplined.

Around me, heads turned. One row ahead, a man tugged with both hands at his hair. The woman next to him shrugged. Other audience members craned their necks and glared murderously toward the back of the hall, as if that would help. I stared straight ahead, then succumbed to temper and curiosity and turned my head in time to see an usher scurrying toward an exit.

Ha, I thought. I hope that usher confiscated the cell phone. Confiscated it and its owner's ticket to the concert. Plus his (or her) beeper, Palm Pilot, credit cards, car key, library card, Blockbuster card, dog's tag, passport and birth certificate. It's the punishment he deserves.

My fury lasted well into the next movement. How can anyone who attends public performances have not read the signs posted at many theaters that ask patrons to turn their cell phones to the silent mode? Or not have heard the announcements frequently made by theater managers: "No cell phones, please."

How can anyone have missed all the essays -- like this one -- written in the last few years to complain about discourteous interruptions during artistic performances?

Irritating interruption

Cell phone-induced outrage may one day have a scientific explanation. Preliminary studies being conducted at Montreal's McGill University indicate that the part of the brain that responds when some people listen to certain kinds of music corresponds to the part of the brain that responds while eating a favorite food or making love.

No wonder I hate cell phones.

Still, don't most of us already know why these needless interruptions are so very upsetting? We go to a concert or a play, an opera or a ballet hoping to be lifted some small distance above the routine of real life. We buy tickets to see people whose talents are larger than our own. The buzz of a watch alarm or the beep of a pager is an unwelcome reminder of the ordinariness of our lives that will return as soon as the curtain falls or the lights go up.

And yet, people continue to bring cell phones into theaters and concert halls. "Whenever there is a dramatic moment or a meaningful silence in the performance," says Michael Watson, audience services manager at Center Stage. "a cell phone will go off."

Cell phone users aren't the only offenders, of course. Performers (and audience members) complain about hearing aids that buzz, babies that cry, ticket holders who talk. In the four years that Watson has been the theater's audience services manager, he has dealt with all sorts of rudeness -- some that defies credulity:

A woman who arrived late for a play discovered that her friend already had entered the theater without her, but with her ticket. Right before Watson's eyes, the woman yanked a cell phone out of her purse and began dialing.

It wasn't until she began talking that Watson realized that she had telephoned her friend. You know, the one inside the theater.

To react or not to react

The interruptions force performers to make choices about how to react. Should the show go on -- no matter what -- or not?

Increasingly, it seems, performers are saying: Not.

Last year, Tony-award winning actor Brian Dennehy stopped a Broadway performance of "Death of a Salesman" to scold audience members who had arrived after the curtain rose.

In Minneapolis, the director of the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band halted a show to chide audience members for arriving late and others for coughing loudly and incessantly.

In Baltimore, earlier this month, actress Lisa Kron stopped her one-woman show, "2.5 Minute Ride" (its final performance is at Center Stage tonight), because an audience member's hearing aid was buzzing loudly enough for her to hear it.

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