Monday, July 7, 2008

Attention Must Be Paid

In the years since handheld digital technology started to invade performance spaces, performing arts organizations have been forced to make announcements before each event reminding audience members to turn off their cell phones and any other digital devices. Such announcements have not only become standard fare in concert halls, opera houses, and theatrical venues, movie chains often screen shorts which request the audience to turn off their cell phones, beepers, and any other paging devices. Recently, at a screening in an AMC movie theater, I watched a familiar short in which Martin Scorsese suddenly -- and very rudely -- interrupted a family's intimate moment to show the mother and young child how they should be reacting to a call from the boy's father so that it would be more believable to the audience.

The film ended with a simple message: "We promise not to interrupt your phone call if you'll promise not to interrupt our film."

Earlier this year, at a screening by the SFIndie Festival, I asked someone who was playing video games on his cell phone because he was bored to turn off the device so the people around him could concentrate on the film. At this year's San Francisco Asian American Film Festival and the San Francisco International Film Festival, audiences were specifically asked to restrain from opening their cell phones to check for messages during the film because the light from the LCD screens is so distracting to filmgoers.

Every time the house lights come up at intermission at a live performance you can see people furiously checking their cell phones and PDAs for messages and texting their friends. At a performance of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? last year at the Golden Gate Theater, the management repeated its request to turn off all digital devices before each act. The Kinsey Sicks are notorious for their announcement before each show, warning that if a digital device goes off during the performance, one of the Kinseys will come out into the audience and personally shove the device up the user's ass.

Therefore, it was a bit of a shock to witness the lax management of events this weekend when the San Francisco Music Festival presented the Milton & Peggy Salkind Second International Piano Duo Festival at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. No announcements about digital devices were made before the gala closing night and, as a result, the abundance of clicking, flashing, whirring and noisy digital devices severely hampered the proceedings.

Sitting directly in front of me were two elderly Russian couples. One of the men kept using a digital camera which merrily chirped before taking a shot (the camera's shutter action could easily be heard from 10 feet away). Later in the concert, as his digital phone went off with a themed musical ring tone in the middle of a performance, the man managed to quiet the device and then, as the musicians kept playing, picked himself up and walked past the stage to exit the auditorium.

In most cases, somone returning to the auditorium while performers were making music onstage would wait until the artists had finished their selection before attempting to return to his seat. Not this man. He strode right past the performers and showed no concern for the rest of the audience as he returned to his group.

It's annoying enough when such behavior comes from an audience member who doesn't know any better. But when the source of irritation is someone who is actually associated with the presenting arts organization, then there is a management problem which needs to be addressed.

Seated two rows in front of us was a middle-aged woman who had apparently been asked to take pictures of her friends when they performed onstage. Obviously not a professional photographer, she kept lifting her camera up to eye level to take flash pictures of the performers -- not only during bows, but as they were making music -- with no awareness of the distraction she was creating. Each time she attempted to take a picture, the audience seated behind her had their attention diverted to the LCD screen on the back of her camera and sat there watching her focus, zoom in, zoom out, and finally take the picture. To call this woman's actions clueless or selfish would be a severe understatement. Her explanation that "I'm taking pictures for the festival" doesn't make her willingness to compromise the audience's experience excusable in any way.

Whether this woman was a volunteer, a board member, paid staff, or a donor is not the issue. The mere fact that someone owns a digital camera does not mean that that person is a professional photographer. So, for the management of the San Francisco Music Festival and any other arts organizations who do not know how to handle such problems, here are some basic rules:

When planning any kind of live performance (especially a classical music festival), make sure that an announcement is made before each performance reminding the audience to silence their digital devices.

Also remind the audience that the taking of photographs is prohibited and that flash photography is extremely distracting -- not just to the performers but to the other members of the audience as well.

Remind your staff, volunteers, donors, and performers not to ask friends to take pictures of them during the performance and explain that every time someone lifts an LCD screen into view it takes the audience's attention off the performer and diverts it to the camera in question.

If you need to take pictures of a performance for archival purposes, hire a professional theater photographer who has access to the proper equipment, sufficient expertise to take pictures without flash and the skill to do so without compromising the audience's artistic experience.

Always remember that you want the audience's attention focused on the artists and not on some broad in the audience with a digital camera.

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