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April 1, 2016

April 1: UMS Bans Cell Phones, Installs Pay Phones


New technology is challenging some expectations of performing arts experiences.

Photo: Willie and Ushers: Get them out of here!

The classical music world has recently been abuzz with high-profile instances of confronting cell phones in the auditorium. There’s Patti LuPone, who “snatched” a cell phone from a texting audience member. New York Philharmonic conductor Alan Gilbert stopped a performance after hearing the familiar iPhone “marimba” ring. In a performance of the Goldberg Variations with the pianist Igor Levit, the artist Marina Abramovic purposefully banned cell phones to create a specific effect. Sometimes, lasers are involved.

On the other hand, organizations are also embracing technology in productive and interesting ways. Through its live streaming of concerts, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has exposed new audiences to orchestral music.Theater makers are exploring co-creating with audience members through social media. Through our own experimentation with tweet seats, we discovered that some audience members in fact experience performances more deeply through tweeting.

Conversations about technology can quickly become polarized, and that makes sense, because people’s experiences of performances can be deeply personal, and so opinions about how performances should go run deep, too. But we believe that technology, in itself, isn’t necessarily isolating, distracting, or bad. It’s how we use it that can create such experiences.

This video was funny for us because we often have these conversations on staff and with our community. But it’s also meant to start a conversation.

Our general policy at UMS is to ask audience members to turn off cell phones and electronic devices during performances. We all know how terrible it is when a phone rings during a performance. It can break that special bond between a performer and the audience. Illuminated screens on phones are also a visual distraction in a darkened theater.

But we’ve made (carefully considered) exceptions, for example, during our tweet seats experiment.

What are your thoughts about technology and performances? We’d love to hear about your positive or engaging experiences with technology and performances, too.