Why are you here?

This is not one of the metaphysical questions Gauguin painted. It is a very direct question. You are, after all, seated in a theater and waiting for the show to begin.

So. Back to the question:

Why are you here?

Is it because you know someone in the show? A roommate? A friend? Perhaps your orientationally-appropriate partner wanted to see this show. And dragged you here with them. Or, perhaps this is your theater company and you were told to show. Or else.

Why are you here?

Writer Frank Conroy

Frank Conroy, who directed the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for nearly 20 years, often spoke of the Writer’s Contract. The writer was supposed to do his work, to be honest, to not cheat the audience, to not waste the audience’s time and energy. In turn, the audience was supposed to do their work, to expect the writer is working under the Writer’s Contract, to assume they will have a rich experience.

And to pay attention.

This concept – the bilateral artist-audience bond – generalizes to all art.

Like the play in which you are about to participate.

Today, in an effort to sell the “old idea” of staged productions to a new audience, marketers talk about immersive or participatory theater. But, in reality, all art is immersive and participatory.

If you do it right.

Why are you here?

For years, Hollywood lampooned the Asian obsession with photography. Asians were often portrayed in comedies with cameras, continually snapping away at anything and everything.

Caddyshack Wang 500x218

The rest of the world has caught up to this stereotyped behavior. What was once deemed aberrant is now commonplace. Too many people live behind the soft bluish glow of their smartphone and tablet screens. These folks view life through a window, disconnecting themselves from the very events they want to experience. Remember the Papal Inauguration in 2013 when commentators pointed out the sea of smartphones in the audience?

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Cameras, both still and video, can capture moments. It’s true. Sort of. I’d prefer, however, to experience those moments instead. My memory of the moment is far better when focusing my senses on it rather than focusing my smartphone camera on it.

Why reduce live theater to substandard television by inserting a screen between you and the live action on stage? And yet, I’ve witnessed exactly that behavior in theaters.

Why are you here?

Social media, of course, increases the temptation to use Internet gadgets. Many want bragging rights: “I am witness. I am here.” And for historic events – including awards shows – live tweeting makes a lot of sense in a reporter sort of way. Simultaneous social media-ing also makes sense when tying together a dispersed audience. Like during an Oscars broadcast. Or a political debate. Or a sporting event.

But does anyone post to Facebook after every few bites of a gourmet meal? Or after every few pages of a novel?

Why are you here?

Some claim that etiquette is dying or dead. That the inclusion of active smartphones and tablets in the house is a fault of new audiences who don’t understand how to behave in a theater.


Audience behavior has evolved to its present state. Most audience members today were trained in a time before ubiquitous Internet connectivity. Anyone over the age of 30 will remember when the pre-show reminder included “Please silence your pagers.” There was a reason for that announcement. So don’t blame the young.

Sci-fi nightmares consist of having our fleshy bodies rudely merged with cold machines. Culturally, there is a growing fear of having technology bonded to our biology. Except in the case of smartphones.

Or, maybe, especially in the case of smartphones.

In a properly executed theatrical production, no act is longer than 90 minutes. Someone who cannot prevent the intrusion of the outer world from their inner psyche for a mere 90 minutes has lost control of their life. Or is in desperate (very desperate) need of human contact. Even if that “contact” comes via a set of electronics.

Why are you here?

When the art you are about to experience was originally created, it’s likely the local Internet gadgets were silenced. It’s easy to turn them off. I know. I do it all the time. And not just when I’m engaged in creating.

In an age where everything is activated by default, it is soul-satisfying to opt-out and suppress the ringer or buzzer. Moreover, studies suggest that smartphone notifications are as disruptive to thought processes as actual use of the device itself. The Pavlovian bell is all that’s required for the Pavlovian response.

In Orwell’s 1984, only those of the privileged Inner Party were able to turn off the telescreens. Exercising the off switch is a powerful mastery of one’s own environment. And with good reason.

For unlike the simple distractions of yesterday, like the sound of a crinkly wrapper, smartphones are active seducers. The seduction is continuous and penetrates well beyond the theater. And it is destructive. People who go down the digital rabbit hole become less engaged with life, not more. While they believe they interact more, they actually participate less.

It takes an effort of concentration – free from active electronic trespassing – to experience the moment. To sense the moment. To consider the moment. To ponder the moment. To feel the moment.

To live the moment.

And, really, isn’t that why you are here?


Originally published July 27, 2015 in Footlights.