Should Arts Organizations Sanction Electronic Devices

Let me just preface this entry by saying I am pretty much old school when it comes to attending performances. I don’t have any problem sitting passively in a dark room watching a performance. I don’t have any problem standing in a dark room and moving around as required for site specific performances. Sure, I get a little uncomfortable when performers in elephant masks sit on my lap and put their arms around me, but I am pretty much open to whatever experience the performers are offering me.

But as a person who programs and administers a performing arts facility, my job requires me to acknowledge that not everyone seeks the same experiences I do and I have to pay attention and be open to making changes.

When you go to the movies, you can’t bring in your own food. Not because the theatres don’t allow food, but because they want to control the environment their spaces–namely the food is purchased from them.

I wonder if the same situation exists in relation to the performing arts. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal this weekend about why you shouldn’t text while in the theatre. I actually agree with the points about wasting money, annoying other people, maybe you are the one that is boring, you aren’t in the moment, you wouldn’t text while your lawyer is advising you and you are interacting with machine instead of humans.

But what is the difference between using a cell phone and Concert Companion? Many of those same points can apply, except Concert Companion is developed and supported by arts organizations and foundations. While I am not sure Concert Companion is still active, the most recent article I can find on it is seven years old, it shows that nearly a decade ago orchestras were already thinking of introducing hand held electronic devices people could reference throughout a concert into the performance hall.

Perhaps they didn’t recognize the problems this might cause, including giving license to others in the audience to pull out their own devices for other purposes. My question is, would these devices be welcomed if they were serving the arts organization? If audiences, especially new audiences, showed an interest in using their iPhones to access information about a performance and told the performing arts organization that it really enhanced the experience, would there be more tolerance for the glowing screens?

There was recently a story about Quebecois artist, Olivier Choinière, who as part of his performance piece arranged for people to attend a performance of Moliere’s School for Wives at Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. The 80 people in his “audience” were instructed to hide their headphones until the lights went down and then start listening to a podcast.

“What the audience within a larger audience was then treated to was Choinière’s indignant but humorous real-time commentary, in which he questioned whether the metatheatrical production lived up to the claims, in the promotional material, that the director had found “terrible resonances with our society” (for instance, regarding pornography and pedophilia) in Molière’s 1662 play about a misogynist named Arnolphe who raises a young girl to be the perfect wife.”

I don’t really agree with Choinière’s event and would agree that it was somewhat closer to being parasitical than a performance. Yet, I think it is an interesting concept and I am sure many of you do as well. I can easily imagine arts organizations doing something similar to help guide audience members through a performance. Provided people keep the volume down so their neighbors can’t hear, ear buds are a far less obtrusive alternative to the glowing screens of Concert Companion type guides.

Though I suspect once people starting using the guides, I suspect they wouldn’t be satisfied with just listening and might crave the accompaniment of visual information as well.

So is it okay for people to listen to podcast commentary or look at supporting materials as long as it supports the show, but a invasive practice if someone is criticizing and lampooning the performance? Will ushers back away quietly when they see an approved image of John Cage on a hand held screen, but swoop down if they see someone texting about their physics homework?

Again, to my mind all these devices are extraneous and intrusive. However, I realize many people didn’t have parents and schools that exposed them to the arts (ah, memories of my sister shouting “Mommy, they are naked,” in reaction to dancers in body stockings.) Right now we see the presence of these devices as detrimental to the experience, but there is a fair possibility that if people start developing performance related content, they will viewed as useful tools for educating and enhancing the experience in the near future.

It would be great if audiences eventually got to the point where they could wean themselves off using devices, but once people start, they may expect/seek material to supplement a performance. No guarantee that the material will always be complimentary or under the arts organization’s control.

While it is easy to criticize, to do a good job providing a running criticism, you would have to know the material about as well as you would to provide a running educational commentary. If there are people like Choinière who have enough motivation to create a criticism, there are probably those just as motivated to create a helpful guide. Tough part might be identifying them so you can partner with them (or point audiences toward their material). It might make sense to seek these people out now (or task your education department to generate the material) before you find yourself scrambling to do so in reaction to a Choinière.

As I sit here writing this, I am thinking, “God, do I really want to create an environment in my theatre that encourages people to use mobile devices?” Yes, people are already doing so against our wishes, but do we really want to sanction that activity by providing content for it? If you think there is a good chance someone else might eventually create negative content, it would probably be good to at least start having hypothetical conversations about how you might implement your own program or otherwise constructively react.

Reader Challenge- In addition to sanction and cleave, are there other words in the English language that have opposite meanings? I seem to remember at least one more.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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