I have mixed feelings about how actors and audiences should handle ringing cell phones. Part of me thinks all action should stop and everybody should stare daggers at the offending party. Another part thinks "the show must go on," and anything else is an even greater interruption. Anyway, what follows is a slightly edited version of a rant by Memphis theater stalwart Tony Isbell, who is currently starring in Sylvia at Theatre Memphis alongside Aliza Moran and Bonnie Daws Kourvelas. This is his description of an event that occured during a Sunday matinee, and I'd love to collect readers' thoughts on the matter.
I did something on stage today that I have never done before. I stopped the performance because of a ringing cell phone in the audience. Allow me to elaborate...
Bonnie [Daws Kourvelas] and I have a short scene [near the end of the play]. In the [audience], a phone starts ringing and it was loud. The lady had one of those rings that literally sounds like the bell on an old rotary phone. Two ladies were sitting on the front row in the Next Stage, which means they were sitting on the stage floor itself. The phone was obviously in the purse on the floor between them. Ultimately the phone rang between 12 and 15 times.
Here is the sequence:
1: The phone starts ringing. Bonnie and I tried to continue.
2. The phone rings about three times. I turn and stare at the woman giving her a nasty look. I can see one woman turn to the other. I can read her body language. She indicates "Should we get the phone." The other woman indicates, It'll stop. This makes me very angry.
3. Bonnie and I try to continue the scene. The phone keeps ringing. I turn to the woman and say, "Would you please turn that phone off?" Both women sit stone-faced and do not move. Bonnie, bless her heart, tries to keep the scene going for another line or so. The phone is still ringing, now up to 8 or 10 very loud rings.
5. I turned to the audience. I say, "Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for this, but seriously, turn that phone off. The lady still isn't moving.
6. Finally, as I stare, one woman starts to reach for her purse. Then, after all that, the phone stops ringing.
I have been tempted to stop performances before but I never have. But I've got to tell you, this is kind of like losing your virginity. The next time will be a lot easier.
So, did the actor overreact or do the right thing? This sort of response has become increasingly common, it seems. But cell phones aren't going away, and accidents do happen.