Inside D.C. entertainment

Turn off your phone in the theater, or you will ruin everything

February 10, 2011 - 12:10 PM
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Twyford, right, was distracted by the ring of a cell phone during a performance of 'The Carpetbagger's Children.' (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

A few weeks ago, actress Holly Twyford had an embarrassing moment on stage for Ford's Theatre's production of The Carpetbagger's Children, for which she plays the character Sissy. She was about to sing the song "Eternity," but just before she began, she momentarily forgot the words. It wasn't due to lack of preparation, or even nerves, though. It was because an audience member's cell phone began to ring, distracting her onstage. And once the phone began to ring, its owner did not try to turn it off.

"People's phones go off and they feel terribly guilty and they're quietly reprimanding themselves for not listening to the turn your phone off announcement, and they're too embarrassed," says Twyford. "They let it ring and play 'La Cucaracha,' and it goes on and on. I would rather have somebody turn it off. We'll move on, but turn it off."

As Twyford stood awkwardly waiting for the cell phone ring to end, and to regain the composure she needed to sing, she had to ad-lib.

"You're up there thinking, how do I play this, do I stay in character?" she says. "Do I say, 'What is that strange sound I hear?' or do I ignore it, because sometimes it's harder to bring the audience back? I said, 'Sometimes it's hard to remember the melody.' Which, in retrospect, was a ridiculous thing to say, because it's branded on Sissy's brain. We can't always come up with the best reaction."

While most theaters will make an announcement at the beginning of each show to remind patrons to turn off their phones, that announcement can go ignored. If the phone rings, no one wants to out themselves as the jerk that ignored the announcement. Part of the problem is that audience members falsely assume that an actor or actress cannot hear them from the stage — not true, as Twyford's and numerous other actors' and actresses' experience proves. In a TMZ video of Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman in Broadway's A Steady Rain. When an audience member refuses to silence the phone, Jackman yells, "You gonna get that?"

Despite the bad manners, Twyford says that cell phone problems in theaters are diminishing, even though she averages a few interruptions per an average show's run.

"When cellphones were relatively new, it happened more. Theaters weren't as prepared," she says. "Ford's Theatre tells you not to text. People text, "I'm seeing a play right now, don't know when it's over," and you get that mostly in the high school matinee — they're texting each other."

Even though it isn't loud, texting can be a noticeable distraction, too. Depending on the theater, actors can look into the audience and see the glow of phone screens illuminating audience member's faces, which is rather insulting. But it's as bad as Twyford's recollection of a rude patron in the 2002 production of Oleanna at the Source Theater, which she starred in with Rick Foucheaux.

"I was in front of his desk, and I couldn't see what he could see [in the audience]. We were having this fast Mamet dialogue back and forth, and he says, 'Excuse me Holly.'" I was like, What? My character's name is Carol," says Twyford. "A guy in the front row had his newspaper open and was reading the newspaper."

Foucheaux later told Twyford that the man had been reading it for the entire show, and he had observed him for a while before deciding to ask him to stop. When Foucheaux approached him, he closed the paper for the rest of the show, and Twyford resumed her dialogue. She has not seen anyone read a newspaper in one of her shows since.

Though reacting to a cell phone's ring is bound to happen to an actor or actress during a show, there's no real way to prepare for it. Actors just have to count on having a knack for improvisation, and the luck to not be interrupted right before a punch line, song, or pivotal moment.

"We are used to the TV, we're used to going to the movies, and there, you can respond any way you want," says Twyford. "In the theater it is very different. We can hear you whispering, we can hear your essence, even if you're in the back of the balcony. The rest of the audience can hear you, too."

So, a quick primer on theater manners:
• Always turn your phone on silent. Better yet, turn it off.
• No texting or e-mail checking while the house lights are down.
• No newspaper-reading, or Kindle or any other media you might have brought.
• No chatting until intermission or the end of the show.
• In short: Anything less than your rapt attention on the stage once the show begins is impolite.

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