How Broadway is Fighting Back Against Phone Use in Theaters

Photo by Peter Lewicki on Unsplash

It’s 7 p.m. on a Friday and you’re excited because you’re finally seeing
the Broadway show that you’ve saved up for. As the usher guides you to your seat, you find yourself surrounded by murmurs of excitement. The lights dim and the crowd collectively lowers their voice. The orchestra begins to play the overture and as soon as the curtain goes up, a cellphone starts to ring.

The theater industry has been battling cellphone use and phone interruptions in theaters for years. Cellphone interruptions have ruined Chloe Fogel and Luke Massaro’s theater experiences more times than they can count. “I saw Moulin Rouge two weeks ago and the woman next to me was fully filming all the big dance sequences. The ushers came over twice to tell her to stop and she kept doing it,” Fogel said.

Massaro said that he notices that older people tend to let their phones go off during performances. “Not to start a generational war but it tends to be older people who have a lot of trouble turning the alarm off promptly, so it tends to go off,” he said.

Freestyle Love Supreme, Broadway’s new hip-hop comedy show produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda, has decided to follow Dave Chapelle’s solution to the phone problem.

Yondr is a company dedicated to creating phone-free spaces for educators, artists, organizations, and more. The company makes designated pouches that lock once a cellphone is placed inside. Patrons remain in possession of the pouches but if they wish to use their device, they’ll have to ask an usher or staff to unlock them.

The pouches are unlocked with an unlocking base located outside the phone-free space. Patrons are asked to turn off their phones or to put them on airplane mode before placing the device in the pouch.

There are some exemptions to the yondr pouch rule at Freestyle Love Supreme. If a patron has medical issues where their devices connect to their phone, they are given a special band to exempt them from putting their device in the pouch.

Nicole McIntyre is the assistant house manager at the Booth Theatre, where Freestyle Love Supreme is playing. McIntyre stated that the pouches have been working very well and there hasn’t been much push back, although there has been one incident since the show’s run in September.

McIntyre explained that in the case where a patron refuses to use the pouch, they are asked to enjoy the show at the designated standing room area at the back of the theater. If they don’t agree with that, they are encouraged to attend the show on another day.

Fogel and Massaro have never used the pouches and aren’t interested in seeing them used in theater. “We’re all adults and everyone should have the capability to turn your phone off and put it away in your bag,” said Fogel. She said that she feels confident in her ability to turn off her phone and “put it away for two hours despite, what many elderly people might think about
millennials. We have self-control.”

McIntyre disagrees. She believes that the yondr pouches should be implemented across all Broadway theaters. “I believe that the yondr pouches enhance the experience of actually going to the theater and seeing a show,” said McIntyre. “It’s a nice thing to not worry about someone being on their phone or getting a call or typing on their screen during a deep
moment of the show.”

She explained that people usually believe that using their phones is not distracting because “they’re seated in the back or upstairs.” McIntyre emphasized that everyone, especially the actors, can see and hear more than one would think. Ultimately, phone use and interruptions are “not just disruptive to the actors but to everyone else.”

Jeremy O. Harris, the playwright of Slave Play, has no issue with people using their phones at the theater. When fans critiqued the playwright for not condemning Grammy winner Rihanna when she texted him during his show on September 19, he simply tweeted “when my idol texts me during a play I’ve written, I respond.” He followed up by tweeting that he is “famously
ambivalent about phone use in theatre.”

Harris is in the minority in this regard. Lin-Manuel Miranda famously banned Madonna from coming backstage after watching her use her phone during most of Act 2 of Hamilton back in 2015. More recently, he called out someone during his Hamilton run in Puerto Rico by changing a line in My Shot during his Jan. 16 performance. The original line was “the problem is I got a lot of brains but no polish.” Miranda changed it to “lady filming in the fourth row, please stop.”

While the cellphone debate rages on in the theater community, the yondr pouches will continue to do their best at keeping phone use to a minimum. Until a solution is found, theatergoers will continue to hope that their live theater experience won’t be ruined by a phone ringing at the top
of the first act.

Journalist, Writer, Part-time YouTuber, Full-time Blerd ⚡