Phones at the opera

One of my favorite productivity bloggers took in his first opera this summer, as part of a trip to Prague. His thoughts on the amount of smartphone use during the outdoor performance sparked a few ponderings from the presenter’s perspective:

The performing arts have all had to contend with the rise of new technology over the centuries:  think of the anxiety around electricity in theaters, microphones in classical music, and John Philip Sousa‘s seriously prescient tirades about recorded music, to name just a few. But it seems that no techno tide has infiltrated or been more actively disruptive than the juggernaut that is the smartphone.

Nearly every event now includes a reminder to silence tech (this convention, of course, started with digital watches), and darkened halls are regularly illuminated by the blue glow of a home screen.  Arts blog share tales of actors berating their rude, interrupting (“Moo!”) audiences*. They rant about the guy who climbed onto the stage in an attempt to charge his phone just before the start of a play. We get a certain amount of glee from these stories, and in some cases, they can inspire creative, improvisational solutions.  But honestly, how big is the underlying problem?

It’s true — interruptions do happen, and probably always will.  Anyone who has presented a classical concert will attest to the fact that phones, tablets, cameras and even contraband infants (our most analog example here) will flub a live recording pronto-quick. Airplanes and sirens and sprinklers and other outside tech can do the same, and we have no control over those.

So “turn off your phone” announcements will likely continue to be a part of our inevitable future, and the act of live recording will always come with an element of risk. (For some, that’s its appeal!)  But on the other hand, while the Prague opera scene described in Chris Bailey’s article linked above makes some salient points, we must remember this: operagoers come in many forms, and making a little room for the tech junkies among us will likely pay off in the end. While witnessing the level of distraction he saw in his fellow tourists would also drive me nuts, outside performances, for instance, may be able to find room for Instagram junkies by providing “social moments” during the event: providing red carpet-style backdrops out front, photo booth areas in the lobby (with rep-themed props, perhaps), or encouraging a few minutes of posting before the request to shut everything down. Other concessions, e.g. providing special seating areas for those who wish to live tweet, can offer some relief for others, and one arts presenter was overheard recently to consider offering a discount to those who checked their phones at the door — a concept which, in practice, would probably open a large can of logistical worms.

For those who prefer to completely unplug at an arts event, tech distractions may simply have to provide a opportunity to improve your own focus and mental discipline: you don’t have to participate in the social media addiction, but you can choose not to be distracted. The beauty of opera and other long-form art experiences is the chance to view, hear and consider something beyond ourselves, beyond the details of our usual daily lives, and certainly beyond our gadgets. That change of routine is fundamental to a rich existence and to the development of a fully-functioning intellect.

But as arts presenters, we must cope with the reality that some folks simply cannot function at a level beyond the three-minute attention span, and this continues to create an artistic dilemma: Are there ways to help them feel welcome, in the hope that they will glean some sense of wonder from the experience? That may be a worthy start. This is the behind-the-scenes tightrope that may be our own adrenaline rush: can we be tech-inclusive without sacrificing the art form?

We’d love to hear your ideas.



*What, you don’t know this very old knock-knock joke?  How very sad…

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