Michael Hawke posted a link to an article about the new Tateuchi Center being built in Washington state and its announced policy to allow cell phone use for texting and tweeting during live performances (note: the policy still restricts phone calls). The responses to his post were understandably reactionary – the move was called dumb, idiotic, etc. Personally, I think it’s smart and visionary.
Look: I spent a chunk of my life resisting new technologies that seemed ridiculous to me at the time. More than 20 years ago, I fought moving to a “windows” based computer system at my work, wondering why anyone would want to do more than one task on their computer at once. Shortly thereafter, I put off adopting an email system, again not grasping what the benefit of text-based communication system would be given that so few people I knew could even type. Ever since these first experiences, I’ve flipped completely. New technologies are consistently reshaping our lives whether we like it or not. Resistance is futile.
A key line in the Tateuchi Center article is this: “this isn't giving in as much as moving on.” I understand that cell phone use in certain contexts can be incredibly obnoxious, and you can ask my teenage daughters about how I’ve railed at them about this at various times. And I’ve had enough infuriating experiences (some of which I’ve detailed in this space) at live shows with inconsiderate patrons to write a book about it.
But I have to be honest: I have texted during plays. As often as I’ve shot accusatory glares at others for talking loudly during a show, I’ve also been that guy trying to get a last text out before the lights go down at the start of the second act. I keep my phone with me nearly all the time and, between the demands of my work and home life, have found the near constant state of engagement valuable.
I am getting very close to 50 years old. Planners and theater professionals need to realize that, if this state of cell phone engagement is not uncommon in someone my age, it’s the absolute norm for those in their 20s and 30s. As the article says, "There's an inevitability to evolving cultural norms.” Those norms now involve cell phones as a vital and persistent aspect of life.
Embracing these changes isn’t just an issue of management for live theater; it’s an issue of survival. Among the broader population, live theater still sits near the bottom of the totem pole of cultural relevance these days. Audiences are aging, the image of “a night at the theater” as a special event that old people get dressed up for (and spend too much money on) persists.
Shows written for the stage have consistently evolved to conform to the tastes of new audiences – incorporating everything from rock music to adult themes to irony over the decades. If the content of theater has changed, doesn’t it make sense that the actual theater experience should evolve as well?