National Review’s Kevin Williamson Is Wrong On Cell Phone Tossing, But Right On Theater Regulation

National Review roving correspondent Kevin Williamson is in the process of congratulating himself for, in response to having been repeatedly interrupted by a phone-using patron at the theater last night, grabbing her phone, hurling it away from her, and getting himself slapped and ejected:

The lady seated to my immediate right (very close quarters on bench seating) was fairly insistent about using her phone. I asked her to turn it off. She answered: “So don’t look.” I asked her whether I had missed something during the very pointed announcements to please turn off your phones, perhaps a special exemption granted for her. She suggested that I should mind my own business.

So I minded my own business by utilizing my famously feline agility to deftly snatch the phone out of her hand and toss it across the room, where it would do no more damage. She slapped me and stormed away to seek managerial succor. Eventually, I was visited by a black-suited agent of order, who asked whether he might have a word.

In a civilized world, I would have received a commendation of some sort. To the theater-going public of New York — nay, the the world – I say: “You’re welcome.”

Let’s leave aside the facts that making grand statement’s like Williamson’s is almost certainly more disruptive both to fellow patrons and to the actors on stage than the use of a cell phone in the audience, and that sending someone else’s phone across the theater at great speed is a much more efficient way to make a martyr of said terribly rude person than to strike a blow for civility. Williamson is right on two points: the use of cell phones in live performances in particular is inexcusably rude, and theaters need to do much more to protect both audiences and performers from interruption.

Theaters tend towards politeness for the most part, asking people to turn off their phones, cameras, tablets, etc., rather than telling people directly that device use will get them automatically ejected and even banned, or, less coercively, using what’s been found to be a psychologically effective tactic of telling audiences what percentage of their peers turn off their phones. But theaters are private establishments that are allowed to set their own rules, and have plenty of good grounds to do so, including the safety of performers who could be distracted by a bright cell phone screen in the audience, and the pleasure of the vast majority of patrons who come to shows hoping to be uninterrupted. And it would be nice to see them be far more proactive to set clear ground rules, to have ushers monitor the house from the back and proactively warn and then eject patrons who use their phones, and even to consider bans on people who don’t comply with stated rules. Such a policy might risk losing some business, but a theatergoer who’s spending all night on the phone should be judged a less valuable customer than one who pays attention.

Or theaters could take a different approach and circumvent the problem of phones in the seats altogether. I attend critics’ screenings of films all the time where the people running the screenings require people attending the film to check their cell phones in paper bags, mostly as an anti-piracy measure. It seems to work just fine, and people seem to submit without much hassle. Theaters for staged plays have two advantages on movie theaters: they already have coat checks, for the most part, and they’re dealing with far fewer performances, so handling the volume of checked phones, whether patrons have to put them in lockers or hand them over directly, shouldn’t be impossible. If the slight inconvenience protects well-intentioned patrons from both cell phone use and the squabbles over it, it’s well worth it.