Famous Theatre Shows Suffer Total Phone Etiquette Meltdown

By Kaila Hale-Stern on at

Last week in the States, the worlds of theatre and social media exploded over a man who jumped on stage at Hand to God in order to plug his charger into a (fake) on-set outlet. In similar news, famous stage actress and renowned diva, Patti LuPone, snatched a phone straight out of a texting audience member’s hand and sauntered off with it. Is Broadway, the American equivalent of London's West End, falling apart?

We live in a day and age when some people still can’t put their phone down, even when they've paid lots of money for a show-ticket and need to leave their phone alone for roughly two hours. I was at a show on Tuesday where the loudspeaker edict to turn off phones had to be enforced by harried ushers right up to the first orchestral swells. “Sir, put it away!” an usher implored, shining his torch of shame in the darkened theatre. “OK, OK, OK,” said the guy, loudly, “OK, I’m doing it.” This was somewhat of a distraction from Les Miserables’ opening scene of a 19th-century galley chain gang.

I’ve written about the frustration of friends being unable to tear themselves from screens at dinner or drinks. But at a Broadway production — or any kind of theatrical event — the breach of basic etiquette is mind-boggling. Theatre is one of our oldest arts, and one of the only remaining where phone separation should not have to be someone’s job to police. This much should be self-evident upon the curtain rising. Still, the Les Mis crowd was a pillar of Jean Valjean-like saintly behaviour compared to the other antics that occurred this week.

Theatre-goers' magazine Playbill tracked down Nick Silvestri, 19, who was visiting the city from Long Island with family and friends. Concerned about his 5% iPhone 6 battery state, Silvestri hopped on stage before the start of the foul-mouthed puppet play Hand to God and attempted to plug his phone into an outlet on-set (the outlet, part of the set design, was non-functional). Playbill’s interview confirmed that his actions weren’t a stunt:

“I saw the outlet and ran for it,” [Silvestri] said. “That was the only outlet I saw, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ I was thinking that they were probably going to plug something in there on the set, and I figured it wouldn’t be a big deal if my phone was up there too.”

And why was he in such dire need of juice? “Girls were calling all day. What would you do?”

A video of Silvestri’s stage invasion was uploaded to YouTube and has since been viewed more than 500,000 times. Social media went wild and continues to comment, spurred further by Playbill’s follow-up with Silvestri. Actors expressed good-natured exasperation and online commentators were endlessly amused:

Broadway Shows Suffer Total Phone Etiquette Meltdown

Broadway Shows Suffer Total Phone Etiquette Meltdown

Broadway Shows Suffer Total Phone Etiquette Meltdown

Broadway Shows Suffer Total Phone Etiquette Meltdown

Broadway Shows Suffer Total Phone Etiquette Meltdown

Broadway Shows Suffer Total Phone Etiquette Meltdown

Broadway Shows Suffer Total Phone Etiquette Meltdown

Silvestri was only on stage for a few seconds before security was on the case. But the incident received such a strong and widespread reaction because it was a perfect storm of our hyper-connected culture and growing concerns around the lack of etiquette and ceaseless screen-time (especially for children).

While we can deplore and mock Silvestri’s thoughtless actions, most of us can also understand his motivation on some level. How many times have you felt the pinch of a dying battery, the attendant anxiety, and gone on a mad quest for an outlet? Just look at the plucky guy on a London Overground train who was arrested a few days ago after snaffling some of the carriage's power from a nearby socket. (Of course, a powerbank standalone charger, which now start at around £5, can go aways to fixing the low-battery blues, though that won’t solve the etiquette question.)

Our phones have become an addictive lifeline we cannot imagine existing even a few moments without, even when we are supposed to be watching an artistic production unfold. Silvestri’s stage-jump was the extreme manifestation of our inability to remain unconnected, and our lack of concern for anything else in the pursuit of our personal mobile comfort zone. Not everyone is standing idly by while we stare down instead of forward, however.

In the same week as the Hand to God incident, a texting audience member had her phone grabbed mid-show by Shows for Days star and Broadway legend Patti LuPone. The news went viral, and LuPone issued a damning statement condemning the technology battle actors are up against. The sentiment should be absorbed by a broader audience than just theater-goers:

We work hard on stage to create a world that is being totally destroyed by a few, rude, self-absorbed and inconsiderate audience members who are controlled by their phones. They cannot put them down.

When a phone goes off or when a LED screen can be seen in the dark it ruins the experience for everyone else – the majority of the audience at that performance and the actors on stage. I am so defeated by this issue that I seriously question whether I want to work on stage anymore. Now I’m putting battle gear on over my costume to marshal the audience as well as perform.

The response to LuPone’s action has been supportive on social media and in the press. The New York Post had fun with a trademark pun-y headline:

Broadway Shows Suffer Total Phone Etiquette Meltdown

Broadway Shows Suffer Total Phone Etiquette Meltdown

While some poked more fun:

These events garnered reaction precisely because we have so few remaining spaces meant to be phone-free that they take on a sort of sanctification. It may be annoying to sit next to someone texting through a movie, but it’s not the same level of disrespect or potential distraction to live performers. And when a person reverse-breaks the fourth wall because his texts are more pressing than his ability to disconnect for an hour, we’re reaching a mobile phone singularity.

What’s to be done? Checking phones at the door — as some press screenings will do — are time- and labour-intensive, and few of us would abide an intermission without being able to tell everyone we know where we are. If you’re a parent, you can try and teach your children that there are some times where a phone is inappropriate. But the most frequent phone etiquette-breachers are adults. And the unfortunate truth is that there are always going to be people like Silvestri (Twitter bio: “I don’t give a fuck”) and the LuPone texter who won’t learn from what the backlash that their actions were wrong, as they should have known in the first place.

Silvestri seems to be enjoying his newfound internet fame:

Perhaps the only solution amid relentless hyper-connectivity is to be like Hand to God, and soldier on with good humour and an upbeat spin.

Broadway Shows Suffer Total Phone Etiquette Meltdown

[Playbill, TheaterMania]