If you’re a theatre lover and a user of social media you’ve probably found yourself recently clicking a link to read about a certain incident involving Patti Lupone and a cell phone, or maybe it was about that small confusion over the usability of an outlet on the set of Hand to God. Either way this summer in theatre circles seems to have been consumed with that pesky question of how our increasingly digitally dependent habits should be dealt with in the theatre. Do we get tougher on such crimes and start kicking all offenders out, do we try to educate more about theatre etiquette, or do we embrace the times with options like tweet seats so those who can’t unplug can type away their experiences during a show? There may not be a wholly right answer for every theatre except to say that cell phones and other devices aren’t likely to go away.
Murder for Two writer Joe Kinosian, though, found a way to work possible digital interruptions into the actual performance when he was playing the role of The Suspects during the show’s initial run and tour. Last year he explained to In New York Magazine how the show’s ‘wink, wink’ relationship with the audience allows it to play with unexpected live occurrences during any performance. “It’s different from other plays, I guess, in that if someone’s phone goes off in the audience, you can directly turn to them and start screaming at them, ‘You can’t do that in The Coast of Utopia.’…There’s some free rein to make up lines depending on the kind of audience you have that night.”
He recounted one night when he had to get particularly creative about the use of a cell phone during the show. “We were doing our final performance in San Francisco, Halloween 2010, and a woman answers her phone. She’s sitting way in the back of the theater, and it’s a big theater, like a 400-seat theater. She comes way to the front of the stage, where there’s an exit and where, I guess, she got better reception… It was one of the few moments of silence in the play, and she’s down there, hanging out by the exit door, talking and talking. She was one of the donors to the theater, so I guess she thought she owned the place. We [actors] couldn’t go on [with the show] because it was too distracting. So, I hopped down from the stage [in character] as the widow Dahlia and grabbed the phone out of her hand and said, “She’s going to have to call you back. There’s been a horrible murder,” and showed the woman on her way. Afterward, I found her in the lobby. We had it out a little bit and discussed proper theater protocol. I hope she learned her lesson. I’d just like to say to all the other [Editor’s note: name withheld to protect the not so innocent] out there, “Don’t you dare answer your phone [when I’m onstage].”