Live performances learn to live with noisy phones

Some pause, others ad lib as ringing phones, beeping alarms and even glowing touch screens become ubiquitous at venues

  • 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… (Brendan Smialowski, Getty…)
January 20, 2012|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

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."

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