A Call To Arms

From Broadway to Baltimore, stage shows try new ways to silence cell phones.

April 24, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Ah, the tintinnabulation of the cell phones.

Far from being saved by the bell, in live theater, a dramatic moment can be destroyed by one.

Instead of Les Miserables' "Do You Hear the People Sing?" you hear: "bbbrrring, bbbrrring." Or, when Julius Caesar's Mark Antony says, "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears," the next thing you hear is a few tinny bars of Fur Elise or The William Tell Overture.

Cell phones have become such a nuisance at stage shows that they've spawned their own mini-art form -- the pre-curtain anti-cell phone announcement.

At Broadway's biggest new hit, Spamalot, the announcement was written and recorded by Eric Idle, the former Python who is one of the show's creators. Whether or not his threat to impale offending theatergoers persuades them to silence their cellulars, it's guaranteed to start the musical comedy off with a laugh.

Sometimes the admonition becomes part of the show itself. After the opening number in another new Broadway musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, actress Lisa Howard, who plays the woman running the spelling bee, works the caveat against cell phones into her instructions to the competition's audience.

Or consider the revised version of Frogs (Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove's 1974 Aristophanes musical) produced at New York's Lincoln Center earlier this season. In this case, the rewritten lyrics of the opening "Invocation" included the lines: "... we'd appreciate / your turning off your cell phones while we wait ..."

And, while actors Nathan Lane and Roger Bart waited, a cell phone went off. It continued to ring until Bart reached into his pocket, pulled out the offending phone and answered: "This really isn't a good time. I said ... Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?"

Amusing as such trumped-up little scenes may be, they're indicative of a pervasive problem.

"I must demand a few, small considerations. One, there is to be absolutely no photography. Two, all cell phones, pagers, beepers and buzzers are to be silenced immediately. Three, if you insist on consuming hard candies during the show, unwrap them now. If even the slightest crinkle or crunch is heard, our staff has been instructed to eject the offending person from the premises."

(Announcement performed by an actor portraying an eccentric art collector in Center Stage's April production of Permanent Collection)

Taking the offensive, many regional theaters also tailor announcements to each show. Center Stage began devising creative pre-curtain caveats three seasons ago. The intent, explains resident dramaturg Gavin Witt, was to come up with something "different enough that you're not lulled by it, as you might be by instructions on an airplane. Who pays attention to the seatbelt announcements?"

The theater's most elaborate solution came in its recent production of the rock musical Two Gentlemen of Verona. Before the performance began, two actors playing servants strolled across the stage. One picked up a large yellow cloud, then flipped it over to reveal the words, "Turn off cell phones."

After intermission, the pair returned with a basset hound in tow. A cell phone rang, and one of the actors took it out of his pocket and answered it. Gesturing to the dog, he said, "It's for you."

The theater began adding post-intermission "reminders" earlier this season, according to resident stage manager Debra Acquavella. Even if theatergoers heeded the original announcement, they often used their phones at intermission, then failed to silence them when they returned.

"Generally speaking, I believe people are more clueless than intentionally annoying to other people. They forget to turn the cell phone off," says etiquette expert Peter Post, a director of the Emily Post Institute in Vermont. "We managed very well for a number of centuries and millenniums without cell phones, and it's only when we got cell phones that we had to be in contact with people immediately."

"Hairspray takes place back in 1962, a time before there were cellular phones and beepers, and we hope that we can travel back to that time, where there would be none heard during a performance."

(Pre-curtain announcement at the Broadway musical Hairspray)

"Our answer to cell phone use is to master it rather than being a slave to it. Mastering it means being able to beat the habit and turn the thing off. ... People are addicted to these things," says Post, who has heard cell phones interrupt everything from plays to funerals. The great-grandson of Emily Post admits he lives "in mortal fear" that his own cell phone will accidentally ring at an inappropriate time.

There have been several famous infractions in the theater world. When actor Kevin Spacey was starring in a London revival of The Iceman Cometh, he stopped a performance after a cell phone rang, looked out at the audience and said, "Tell them we're busy."

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