A friend of mine sent this link to Facebook. And I had a new hero. Kevin Williamson, smasher of cell phones, kudos! Very well done indeed sir! I genuflect in your general direction!
And yet. Why do we (okay, I) celebrate this guy? For committing, what? Theft. Destruction of property. I went shopping last night, was having a bad leg day and so brought my cane. Well, what if that had offended someone? What if some fellow shopper had seen me limping around Shopko with my cane, become outraged, ripped the cane from my quivering hands, broken it over his knee? ‘Walk, you frickin’ gimp! Be a man!’ I imagine him shouting. Wouldn’t I find his behavior outrageous. Heck, wouldn’t I call the cops on the jerk?
But in a theater, stealing a phone (an expensive one, I imagine), and flinging it against a wall (certainly a disruptive act) is something we applaud. I applaud. I think it’s awesome. I think they should give the dude a medal. I think he should get theatre tickets for free, for life, everywhere. His is a brand of vigilantism I applaud. While generally wagging a disapproving finger at essentially every other kind of vigilantism there is.
‘Cause you just don’t do that. The word theatre comes from the latin, theatrum, which means, theatre. So you can see how holy it is. I mean, come on, latin. A theatre is a sacred place, and the performances that take place there are sacraments and talking on a cell phone during a performance is really just like farting in Church. Loudly, on purpose. And then giggling and saying to your friend something like “dude, light a match, I just cut a good one.” Or your friend goes, “dude, did you just fart?” and you respond, “hey, you know the rule, whoever smelt it, dealt it.” And then he does a choking thing, and says something like “it’s not so much the smell, it’s the burning in my eyes!” And then you both fall down giggling on the bench there. In Church. During services. Both of you. That’s what talking on a cell phone in a theater is like. Just like that. And maybe it’s cute and little okay when you’re five. But at twenty-five, or fifty-five? Unforgiveable.
Little kids get a dispensation. In fact, the great joy of doing children’s theatre is the audience interaction. Kids are amazing audiences. Completely honest. A kid, in a theater during a boring performance won’t just shift in his chair or rustle a program. He’ll say, very loudly, “I’m bored!” Sometimes in a grown-up play, an actor may get away with a weak transition or a moment that’s less than totally honest. Audiences are polite, after all. Boy, not in a theatre with kids. They’re brutal. Wonderfully, magnificently, brutal.
I wrote a play a few years ago, called Coughlaugh. It was an experiment in audience/actor interaction. The premise of the play is that the actors did absolutely nothing unless prompted by an involuntary sound from the audience. If someone coughed, the actors performed one action, if someone rustled a program, they did another action. And after the fifth repetition of the ‘cough’ action, they did a different one. The idea was to implicate the audience in the performance. It actually got kind of Pavlovian. And the actor actions got more and more violent, so audiences became implicated in violence; that was also part of it. We did it a couple of times. Some audiences dug it; others really were bothered by it. The point, of course, is very John Cage–whatever happens in a theater is part of the performance. Which is why cell phones are so obnoxious and jarring.
Part of my loathing of audience misconduct is history. For years, the only movie theater in Provo that my wife and I could afford to go to was Movies 8, a second-run dollar theater. (Though my son, who worked there, likes to point out that tickets were actually $1.50.)
Movies 8 was the epicenter for audience rudeness in the Western hemisphere. Because movies there were cheap, folks didn’t seem to feel any constraints whatever. I remember a couple who brought children aged 3 and 5 to see Jurassic Park. Two terrified youngsters howling in terror, while Mum and Dad placated them with honey-nut cheerios, and . . . stayed. Enjoying a movie they’d ruined for everyone else.
Let’s play guess the movie! From two rows behind us, an elderly and hard-of-hearing gentleman provided this commentary: “That kid’s a what? A robot? How do you know he’s a robot? He don’t look like a robot? You sure he’s a robot? What about that other guy? He’s a robot too? Are you sure? Why they hell would they make a movie about a kid who’s a robot?” 50 points to first correct guess.
But, see, at Movies 8, this kind of outrageous movie commentary was de rigueur. Cell phones, man, they were the least of the distractions you had to negotiate. For one thing, for every movie, regarding of subject matter, approach or rating, the audience had a significant kiddie contingent. Newlyweds (and newlybreds) are poor, and for entertainment found a buck and a half ticket price congenial. So kids got dragged to everything. And sacrament meeting rules applied–some folks were pretty conscientious about taking crying kids out, and some folks seriously weren’t.
And even beyond the children at inappropriate movies, Movies 8 audiences were generally rude. Talking, chatting, commenting on the movie. Popcorn fights. Loud random noises, and then adolescent laughter at the fact that they’d made a loud random noise in a theater. Running around during the show. Climbing over you in repeated trips to concessions/bathrooms. And cell phones. Always, always, with the phones.
And that’s at movies. Distractions seem fifty times more egregious at live theatre performances. Part of it, of course, has to do with live-ness. Those are real people up there, performing their hearts out. To disrupt their performance feels rude. Ruder. Every theater I know has a protocol for cell phones, a pre-show announcement of some kind, and most theaters try to word it cleverly or engagingly. So when someone puts their own momentary need to interact electronically over the needs of the many folks gathered together in a theater, that’s rudeness compounded. And I start to feel okay with audience members taking the law into their own hands.
Confession time: I’ve been guilty too. Of cell phone malfeasance. I mean, when I was a little kid, and saw my father sing the role of Scarpia in Tosca, and shrieked inopportunely ‘that lady just stabbed my Daddy!” I was what, five? Forgiveable, even, apparently, a little cute (though my Mom was mortified). But for a grown-up to interrupt a live theatre performance, that’s a totally different thing. And I did it. Just once, but the memory still scars.
I was attending a play (a really good one) in Salt Lake. And I’d just gotten a new phone, and didn’t know how it worked. But it had a music function–I could play tunes on it. And pushing one particular button was how you accessed that function. Which, five minutes into the show, I scooched around in my chair and accidentally did. And couldn’t figure out how to turn it off. For four whole minutes.
So to anyone else in that house that night, know that I still burn with shame, and feel terrible about ruining your evening, and know I did a bad thing and promise it will never happen again. Ever. And if Mr. Kevin Williamson wants to destroy my phone, I’ll let him. He can even come to my home, and I will hand it over.
And I promise. Never, ever, again.