The Business of Show Biz: Device—or Vice?
Monday, August 24, 2015
Posted by: Katharine Chin
By Velina Brown
Q: I am in a large cast show right now, and I am so disheartened by how many actors and crew are on their cell phones backstage during the show. Some actors have them in the pockets of their costumes! I am guilty of being on my smart phone too much in public and in my everyday life, but when I am at the theatre I put it in my bag and don’t look at it until after the show. I do this for a couple of reasons...First of all, I don’t want to get bad news during the show, and second of all, I want to be truly and completely present for the show and my fellow actors. It would feel somehow disrespectful to my craft. I’m trying not to judge the people who do this, but it’s hard. I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week and wonder what your thoughts are on the subject.
A: I am currently in rehearsals with a group of fabulous actors with whom I’ve never worked. Therefore, I don’t know if anyone in the cast is inclined to take their phones backstage or on stage during the performances. But as we sit together on a break, most people, including myself, have our phones out. The thing about smart phones or tablets is that you can do so many things with them. Before the advent of smart phones, on a break you might have seen one person making a call, another reading a book, another updating his or her calendar, another balancing his or her checkbook, et cetera. All of these activities looked different, so it was clearer what each person was doing. Now that we can do all those things on one device, it just looks like we’re all doing the same thing—crazily staring at our devices—when, in fact, a variety of activities are happening.
Obviously, I’m not averse to using phones on a break. But regarding what’s happening backstage during a show, let’s think it through.
People do all sorts of things to pass the time when they are off stage during a performance.
reading books, magazines, etc
listening to or watching the game
betting on the game
playing chess, scrabble, poker
sudoku, puzzles of all sorts
taking a nap
Is using a smart phone or tablet worse than the above activities? On the face of it, I would say no. However, the main difference with most of them (with the exception of listening to the game) is that you’re not at risk of suddenly receiving, as you mentioned, upsetting or bad news that you can do nothing about in the moment but that could adversely affect your performance. So the difference between reading something in hard copy form versus on a digital device is that, when I turn the page of my book, I’m not suddenly going to see the news that a childhood friend has recently lost her battle with cancer...and then have to go on stage with that on my mind. But I could get such a text or Facebook notice while reading on my phone. The danger is in how suddenly the outside world can intrude.
Bringing a phone on stage in one’s costume is another matter entirely. I haven’t spoken to anyone who admits to doing that for this piece to hear his or her side. But I think that, since you cannot answer your phone on stage, and feeling it vibrate in your pocket can only be distracting, there’s no point of having with you. What if it falls out of your pocket and you’re in a period piece depicting a time in which there were no cell phones? You’ve just destroyed the reality that everyone’s been working so hard to create.
Actually, there is one reason I can think of. Many moons ago, I was in a show where valuables (wallets, phones, jewelry, etc.) were collected—and then, after the show, an actor’s phone that had been collected was missing and never found. After that, no one wanted to turn in any valuables. So in a bad work environment such as that, I can see why someone would want to keep everything with them.
Otherwise, I see no good reason for bringing one’s phone on stage. I would be interested in hearing from people who see it differently. In the meantime, my friend, try not to be too disheartened. I don’t think anyone means to be disrespectful of their craft or their fellow artists. It always takes time for the culture and manners to catch up to technology. The tone for responsible device use needs to be set by the more experienced actors, crew members, stage manager and director. And you are helping lead the way by starting thoughtful and respectful conversations like this one. While I appreciate the freedom offered by our miracle devices—you are likely reading this on such a device right now—true freedom also means having the freedom of unplugging, being in the moment of creation with our fellow artists...and letting the world keep spinning for a few hours without us until the curtain falls.
Velina Brown is an actor and career consultant. Send her your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.