Brainless in Seattle

Or rather, in Bellevue, WA, if we’re being picky.

Various media outlets are reporting, this week, that the not-yet-under-construction Tateuchi Center, a new performing arts complex in Bellevue, is planning to implement a policy which allows mobile phone use apart from for voice calls during performances. The complex’s executive director, a Mr. John Haynes, is quoted by the New York Times as saying that texting and tweeting via smartphones is “the wave of the future for the people we worry about attracting… simply forbidding it and embarrassing people is not the way to go. So we are wiring the building in anticipation of finding ways to make it work over time.”

One might wonder why Mr. John Haynes, who appears, based on these comments, to have little respect for either audience members or performers, has picked a career path that culminated in the executive directorship of a performing arts complex.

The thing is, there’s no way of using smartphones in a darkened theatre, even for things other than voice calls, that won’t somehow be disruptive for other patrons. Mr. Haynes talks, elsewhere in that New York Times piece, about perhaps offering patrons small screens to phone users to dim the light from their mobile devices, but the flaws in this plan are easy enough to spot – it’s hard to see how this would work with something like the iPhone, where the (very bright) LCD screen is also the user interface, and any masking device that blocked light coming from the screen completely would render the smartphone unusable anyway. I don’t even understand the mentality of wanting to use a smartphone during a theatrical performance. I’m no luddite; I have a BlackBerry, I text, I tweet, I’m on Facebook and all the rest of it, but when I’ve spent money on a ticket I want to give my attention to the performance, not to the screen of my mobile phone, and I certainly don’t want to engage in any kind of behaviour that might disrupt the performance in any way for the people sitting around me. When I go to the theatre (or the cinema, or a concert, or whatever), my phone is switched off when I enter the building. It’s just basic good manners.

At the last several shows I’ve attended, distracting light from someone’s phone screen, at some point, has been visible during the performance. And it is distracting, more than you’d expect. There’s a reason you sit in the dark, with the only bright lights coming from the stage: it focuses your attention. Glimpsing the light bleeding from some selfish idiot’s mobile phone screen, even from several rows back, pulls you out of the moment. And if people in the audience can see it, it’s more or less a certainty that the people on the stage can see it too. Using a phone during a performance is rude, selfish behaviour; it may be behaviour that’s becoming more and more common, but that doesn’t mean it should be legitimised.

I freely admit that my personal ideal solution to mobile phone use during a theatrical performance – a Monty Python-esque giant anvil being dropped from a great height onto the head of the offender – is not practical. Clearing up the blood spatters from the walls would put a strain on a theatre’s maintenance budget, the carpets and upholstery would probably be ruined, and manslaughter carries serious criminal consequences including jail time. Putting offenders in the stocks outside the theatre and letting the rest of us throw rotten fruit at them, however, also has a certain appeal, particularly if we let people film the fruit-throwing on their smartphones and post the footage to youtube as a warning. Since these kinds of direct punishment are not an option, however, I will vote with my wallet. If a theatre close to where I live made public that they’d adopted this kind of policy, as far as I’m concerned, it would have precisely one effect: I would stop buying tickets to their shows.

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