Even Yannick has had it.

Are Philly arts-goers incapable of silencing their phones?

5 minute read
Nézet-Séguin passionately conducts Trifonov on a gleaming grand piano, with orchestra members around them.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts pianist Daniil Trifonov with the Philadelphia Orchestra in October 2022. (Photo by Jeff Fusco.)

Ringing cell phones were so disruptive to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Tuesday, May 6, Bruckner program that conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin stopped the concert twice, wrote Inquirer music critic Peter Dobrin in his review. “Can we live without the phone for just one damn hour?” the maestro exclaimed from the podium. But if the Great Nézet-Séguin Bruckner Scolding of 2023 means that Kimmel Center audiences all silence their phones in future, I’ll eat my playbill.

Last week, before the Theatre Exile world premiere of James Ijames’s Abandon, company leaders making the curtain speech begged the audience to silence their phones. And did they?

What do you think?

A ringer went off at full blast in the front row, less than 10 feet from the actors. Meanwhile, another phone vibrated audibly throughout the entire performance with enough texts to plan a potluck dinner for 20.

Pandemic narcissism?

In a follow-up to his review, Dobrin notes that the smartphone scourge is part of a bigger problem of bad behavior with no clear cause: other recent concerts have been disturbed by talking, rustling wrappers, and people who think infants belong at the orchestra.

“Why the conventions of how to act in public have broken down isn’t entirely clear,” Dobrin says. But he has a guess: the “pandemic-induced narcissism” of people who haven’t readjusted to public life after a couple years of being too comfy at home.

This could be true, in some sense, and not just in the theater. Perhaps because they were deprived of critical in-person socialization, it never occurs to any of the youths on the subway that they could hold off on sucking their vapes for the five minutes between Walnut-Locust and Tasker-Morris. Marijuana or cigarette smoke often fills the cars, despite anti-smoking messages blaring from SEPTA stations. As a car-free pedestrian, I’ve noticed Philly drivers getting even more negligent and impatient. Many don’t even hit the brakes for stop signs and turns.

People are rude. But we’re also living in a violent, dilapidated country trying to emerge from a global pandemic. To anyone who’s getting their first inkling of a more troubled world because of a decline in concert etiquette, I would say, where have you been? Welcome to the world, or some version of it.

A natural disturbance?

And the conventions of attending a concert or play are not as ironclad as we like to pretend. When I attended Opera Philadelphia’s La bohème at the Academy of Music, the lady on my left complained, “Oh, what a mess.” The lady on my right hummed along to the arias. Someone directly in front of me, sitting in the first few rows, held up a smartphone to record a segment of the show. But none of this was as distracting as potent flatulence in the vicinity, issued with impunity thanks to the nearby orchestra. In other words, it was a Sunday afternoon among humans at one of our city’s great cultural institutions.

I go to a lot of shows. People fall asleep and snore. They bring their barking, phlegmy cough to the symphony. They chat after the lights go down. They bring babies who would rather wail than absorb the finer points of modern dance. When I saw Into the Woods at the Miller, the guy next to me brought his leftovers, the odor of which cloaked everyone nearby for the almost three-hour runtime. He loved the performance so much that he sobbed noisily throughout it. People grab the mic at talk-backs and orate their five-minute “questions.” Once, during a solo show at the Lantern, I saw Anthony Lawton become so irritated by latecomers that he stopped the performance and started over from the beginning. During a Fringe show with seating on overcrowded risers, I scooted my chair a little and fell off the edge to the consternation of everyone around me.

Should we learn to live with it?

When stuff like this happens, I think of what my dialectical behavior therapy practitioner would probably advise: radical acceptance. Radical acceptance doesn’t mean you like what’s happening; it’s just a way to move more peacefully through a world full of annoying, evil things outside your control, while preserving your energy for the things you can act on. The fact is, none of us can control what everyone else in the theater is doing.

But it is also a fact that artists deserve our undivided attention—just like everyone who purchased a ticket deserves to enjoy the show in peace. And this is the only subject in the world where all social-media commenters are in complete agreement. Apparently there are two kinds of people in the world: those who use the Internet on their phones, and those who don’t turn their phones off in theaters, and never the twain shall meet.

What’s to be done? Flashing signs, as Dobrin suggests? Should Nézet-Séguin give us all detention until the perpetrators own up, apologize, and promise never to do it again? The last performance I attended with zero phone disturbance was comic John Mulaney’s most recent Philly stop, where staffers locked every phone into a tiny shroud on the way into the theater (lest any choice bits escape).

But if the last several years have proven anything, it’s that our pocket computers are now part of us. A performance without any pings or rings might be as impossible as one without tears, laughs, coughs, farts, snores, late arrivals, whispering, and trips to the bathroom—as long as we’re all still human. And that’s something we may have to radically accept, even as we beg people to show the basic courtesy of silencing their phones for one damn hour.

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