The Science of Cell Phones and Curtain Speeches

12.15.10 | 11 Comments

CATEGORIES conversation starter, theatrical ecosystem

There are times I wish I was a social scientist. Nothing answers a question as definitely, for me, as evidence-based reasoning. Unfortunately, when it comes to curtain speeches and their ability to actually convince audience members to silence their cell phones, we largely seem to be working from received wisdom instead. We give the same speeches we’ve always given – “Please take a minute to silence your cell phones,” or a variation thereof – rather than experimenting to determine whether other approaches might get better results.

Let’s imagine a year-long test, conducted at perhaps a dozen theaters around the country.  Three different curtain speeches could be recorded – one with a fairly nondescript message, one with a more aggressive message, and one with a Southwest Airlines style comedic message – then played an equal number of times at each theater. The number of cell phone rings could be tallied throughout the season, and then we’d know with a bit more certainty which approach worked more effectively.

It’s not hard to imagine similar experiments, either, designed to answer a variety of related questions. Is the curtain speech more effective at getting audience members to silence their cell phones when the person giving the speech is holding a cell phone as a prop? How does a curtain speech compare with no curtain speech at all? Do certain audience profiles – older or younger, for example – respond differently to different message styles?

Then, of course, there are important questions that could be asked about the other needs that are typically met (or that could be met) by curtain speeches. Often they’re used to thank donors for their contributions… but in thanking generous patrons, what effects are we having (if any) on the rest of the house? Often curtain speeches serve as an opportunity to sell patrons on season ticket packages or tickets to future shows – the theatrical equivalent, in some ways, of the advertising that certain movie chains screen in their theaters before the feature film begins. By introducing a sales message at that moment, are we changing how audiences respond to what they subsequently see on stage?

I’m certain there are many anecdotes and traditions that speak to all of these questions… but anecdotes and traditions don’t make for hard evidence, and hard evidence is necessary for reasoned conclusions.

Have there been any studies? Does anyone know a good sociologist or behavioral economist with a passion for theater who might like to do a few? I’m sure we’d all be smarter for the effort. Heck, if all we do is reduce the number of cell phones that ring during critical theatrical moments, won’t that be reward enough?

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  • Anonymous

    I hate curtain speeches. I hate being asked for money when I have paid for a ticket and am waiting to see whether that was a good idea. And I am a theatre practitioner with a very clear understanding of the financial needs of any given non-profit.

    Stick with me, now; this is a little tangential but hopefully germaine. Colleges used to host thank-a-thons, where work-study types would call alumni to thank them for their contributions to the institution. This wasn’t a veiled pitch for more money; it was a simple thank you. I notice now that many non-profit organizations to which I donate want to call me at home to ask me for more money. If I tell them it isn’t a good time, that I will give when next I am able to do so, they continue to push instead of trusting me. I find it makes me resentful: (a) that they ask and ask; (b) that they don’t say thank you; and (c) that they don’t believe me when I tell them I will given when it is possible for me to do so. Where am I going in this Albee-esque ‘long way out of my way in order to come back a short distance correctly’ thought? I think I am saying that it would be cool if the curtain speech were a lot shorter, and were a lot more appreciative of patrons’ effort and expense.

    As for the mobile phone issue, my thoroughly unscientific assessment is that when one can fold the plea to turn off the phone into the world of the play in some way (‘please turn it off because there were no phones in 1760’, etc), when one can enfold the entreaty in a collective laugh, it seems to be more successful.

    • That was a fun ride!

      I do think a shorter speech — nicely delivered — is more effective at the simple task of warming up the crowd and then getting out of the way of the play. Like you, I really do loathe being advertised to in those moments… but I loathe that in general. Again, though… the bills must be paid.

      I do love the technique of incorporating the cell phone announcement into the world of the play. The way you phrased that, it helps the audience contribute (if they do turn off their phones) to creating the world of the play…

  • PKP

    I am the Director of Programming for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. We don’t use our curtain speech to ask for more money. We never mention donations during our curtain speech. We often mention upcoming events, but those events are almost always free events like our Pub Nights, where we get a bunch of people together and drink beer and talk about Shakespeare. Our curtain speech is nothing more than an extension of the conversation between our theater and our audience. I think that’s what curtain speeches should do at their best. And get people to turn off their damn cell phones.

    • I like the notion of the curtain speech as an extension of the conversation. I wonder whether there’s any way to enrich them with a word or two of what one might typically find in a dramaturg’s or director’s note in a program…

  • Michael Dove

    At Forum, we’ve gone with a pre-show announcement of an actor’s voice in the show (usually a character who has some authority–my favorite being the Angel in ANGELS IN AMERICA) that tends to be tongue firmly in cheek to get an audience’s attention. Any sales/programming announcements or donation asks are always made post-show, so as not to color the experience of seeing the show. Also, we feel that you’ll have more attentive ears after they’ve been tuned to listening to the show, by that point.

    • I saw that highly estimable production, and I found your pre-show announcement tactic particularly effective in that instance… but was it effective in reality? I’m sure you’ve got nothing more than anecdotal evidence, but I’m curious about whether you think your tactic is more effective than an ordinary announcement…

      • Michael Dove

        We certainly had good luck with a lack of phone rings throughout that run. I guess, sadly, what’s most important is that we keep mixing it up to get people’s attention…but at least that gives us leeway to have some fun with it.

  • Steve Spotswood

    Theater J’s production of New Jerusalem last season was staged with an abrupt start to the show–the actor asked for the doors to be shut and no one else admitted–and forewent the pre-show announcement entirely. Consequently, there was a high rate of cell phones going off in the first act. Sure, it’s not a randomized double-blind study, but it’s something.

    And I make it a general rule in life to never disagree with Mike Dove, but I would take the pre-show announcement over the post-show one any day. I want to leave the show thinking about the show, not about subscriptions, donations, etc. The last two plays I’ve seen have done post-show announcements, and I think they did far more to impact the experience of seeing the show than pre-show announcements.

    • Hey there, Steve —

      I’m really not surprised at the anecdotal evidence from New Jerusalem. I really do believe that the “turn off your cell phones” announcement catches a significant number of people… just not all of them.

      As for the pre- versus post-show announcements debate… I prefer neither. I want to see the play, un-bookended by pedestrian language of the announcements that are typically made. I do know, however, that the bills must be paid…

      • Michael Dove

        Well, I certainly agree and would rather do neither—and often think about ways of avoiding them.

        Maybe it’s my evangelical upbringing that causes me to want to pass the offering plate as theatre has replaced church, for me. Another topic for my non-existant therapist who’s helping me deal with preacher/artistic director issues……

  • Well yes, we may be annoyed if we are asked to turn off our cellphones especially if we are waiting for an important call from a client that we’ve wanted to close a deal with. ha! it’d be very hypocrite of me to say that I don’t get affected by that matter but yes I have to admit, guilty as charged. Often times,I realized that if He isn’t there I wouldn’t be where I am now. So I have to obliged in a simple request of turning off my cellphone.