It’s been a big week for news about cell phones in theaters. On Sunday, an audience member at Broadway’s Hand to God made national headlines when he leaped onstage before the show in an attempt to charge his phone in an outlet he saw on the set. On Tuesday, usually mild-mannered actor Jonathan Groff dissed Madonna for using an electronic device during a performance of Hamilton at the Public. And last night, red-hot diva Patti LuPone set the theater world abuzz when—while exiting a scene in Shows for Days at Lincoln Center—she grabbed the phone of a woman in the front row who had been texting during the show, and took it offstage with her.
LuPone has a long history of taking strong public stands against audience misbehavior at the theater, most famously in 2009, when she literally stopped the show in Gypsy to berate someone for taking photographs in a tirade that quickly went viral. She has now issued a statement on the most recent incident: "We work hard on stage to create a world that is being totally destroyed by a few rude, self-absorbed and inconsiderate audience members who are controlled by their phones. They cannot put them down. When a phone goes off or when a LED screen can be seen in the dark it ruins the experience for everyone else—the majority of the audience at that performance and the actors on stage. I am so defeated by this issue that I seriously question whether I want to work on stage anymore. Now I’m putting battle gear on over my costume to marshal the audience as well as perform."
We’re with LuPone one hundred percent. Response to the phone grab on social media has been overwhelmingly supportive but there have been a few dissenters, who feel that LuPone’s action was itself distracting and disruptive. Yet such complaints miss the larger point. Audience misbehavior has gotten out of hand—yesterday’s matinee of Shows for Days was reportedly marred by multiple mobile-phone rings, which may be why LuPone was so angry at the evening performance—and most actors are not in a position to do anything about that. But LuPone, by virtue of her stature, temperament and history with this issue, could make a difference. When she pulls a stunt like this, it makes headlines; it has a chance to help shape the cultural drift, even in a small way. Phone etiquette at the theater is on people’s brains now, and they may be marginally less likely to make the same mistake as that woman in the front row. Yes, LuPone took a cell phone, but she took it for the team.
The audience at that performance of Shows for Days may have been taken out of the play for a moment, but those spectators got a great theater story in the bargain. Theater lore thrives on such legends, and LuPone is cementing her wild-hero status within it. She’s using her star power for the greater good. Battle on, Patti. Battle on.