Nothing kills the mood before a show like a clunky cell phone announcement or fundraising pitch from the stage.
You got to the theater early and you have been waiting in your seat. The performance is finally about to begin.
The house lights go down and the audience quiets. Anticipation for a great night of theater or music is at its peak.
But instead of the first lines or notes, you’re greeted with a boring announcement reminding you to silence your cell phone and other electronic devices.
Or someone comes on stage to lecture you on the program you’re about to see, or — worse — plead for money on behalf of the organization.
It’s like being on an airplane that’s been cleared for takeoff but — just as the engines start revving — taxis back to the gate. The giddy anticipation drains.
I’ve had that experience again and again.
The most recent example was last weekend in Springfield, Ill., when the Illinois Symphony Orchestra began its concert with executive director Trevor Orthmann walking on stage to deliver a series of announcements about an upcoming fundraiser, silencing cell phones and so forth.
Then music director Karen Lynne Deal walked on stage to talk about the new piece the orchestra would perform later that night, how composer Judith Shatin was supposed to be in attendance but had become ill and could not make it, and how the work was dedicated to Gerald Morgan, a longtime supporter of both Deal and Shatin.
Fine sentiments, but by the time Richard Haglund came on stage to conduct the first piece — not the one Deal had been talking about — it was nearly 10 minutes past the announced start time.
I got a striking example of another way of doing things the next day in Chicago.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus were performing Bach’s “Saint John Passion.”
The concert began with an unseen announcer reminding patrons to silence cell phones and not to record or take photos of the concert. Nothing special so far, though I think the disembodied voice was preferable to an on-stage announcer making himself part of the show.
It was the second half of the concert that began in a shockingly simple way.
The lights dimmed. Conductor Bernard Labadie and the vocal soloists walked on stage. The audience applauded.
Then before the clapping had died down, Labadie turned around and began conducting. The music overlapped the applause for what felt like a long while, though it was probably not more than a second or two.
It was great — no fuss, no muss, no lounge act “let me tell you what Bach was thinking about when he wrote this.” Let’s just get on with the show, thank you very much.
I realize it’s easy for me to throw stones — unlike Orthmann and Deal, I don’t have to worry about engaging fickle audience members or keeping an expensive nonprofit organization on solid financial ground in the middle of a recession.
But there are other ways to handle these things. Inserts in programs can communicate with the audience about fundraising needs — the ISO has included several this season — especially when performances frequently start late and people are looking for something to read while passing the time.
And theaters have gotten creative in getting people to silence their cell phones.
Patrons have become inured to straightforward “please silence all electronic devices” announcements, just as many of us ignore the safety lectures on airplanes. We assume we’ll be able to figure out what to do in the unlikely event of a water landing, and we assume we remembered to silence our phones.
Last month, New York Times reporter Steven McElroy chronicled some of the humorous ways Broadway shows are handling the announcements. Some shows have included salty language to get the audience’s attention — the hair-metal musical “Rock of Ages” has Whitesnake’s David Coverdale saying things I’m not permitted to reproduce here. (The public radio program “Soundcheck” played the announcement in a segment on McElroy’s story.)
Even shows that are not suited to humorous warnings have gotten more creative. On “Soundcheck,” McElroy described how an off-Broadway production of “Our Town” handled the cell-phone reminder. The Stage Manager, a character in the play, walked out and began delivering his lines while simultaneously holding up his phone, turning it off and putting it in his pocket.
There’s an expression that lawyers and judges use: “res ipsa loquitor.” It’s a Latin phrase that means “the thing speaks for itself.”
It would be nice to see it appropriated for live entertainment as “ars ipsa loquitor.” Let the art speak for itself.
Brian Mackey can be reached at 217-747-9587 or firstname.lastname@example.org.