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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

One Small Victory in the War on Cell Phones

For MTActor Alexander Lutoshkin taking spectators' cell phones at Studio of Theatrical Art.
The battle with cell phones in Moscow theaters has taken on an interesting new twist at Sergei Zhenovach’s Studio of Theatrical Art. When you enter the foyer to attend a performance of “The River Potudan” you are greeted by a smiling young man (he’s an actor, a good one, and his name is Alexander Lutoshkin) who is dressed in the garb of a Red Army soldier. He hands out free copies of the evening’s program and generally adds to the atmosphere of authenticity that is so important in this theater and to this show that is set in the 1920s.

But it turns out Lutoshkin has another job, too. When the audience is invited to take their seats in the hall, lo and behold, he is already standing at the doorway. He’s still smiling, but there’s something about him now that says he means business, too. And indeed he does. Lutoshkin is confiscating spectators’ cell phones. What a concept! As each spectator approaches the door, Lutoshkin asks for their telephone and their ticket. Each phone is carefully filed away in a specially-made filing cabinet with little numbered cubbyholes corresponding to each seat in the hall.

Not everybody was as happy as I was to see this tactical innovation being applied against the mentally and morally challenged people who insist on retaining the convenience of making and receiving calls and text messages even as they watch people’s lives hang on a precipice during a theater performance. The woman in front of me in line did not want to give hers up.

“I’ve turned off the ringer,” she said defensively.

“That’s good,” said Lutoshkin, “then it won’t ring out here either.”

He reached to take the phone away from the woman, but she wasn’t going for it yet. She just couldn’t imagine herself without her phone in hand, something to stroke in her pocket at will, rather like a surrogate
wet thumb or soggy baby blanket.

“But it won’t bother anyone in my pocket,” the woman continued, sounding almost fearful now.

“And I can guarantee you it won’t bother anyone out here, either,” Lutoshkin said, his charming smile never wavering for a second.

He deftly removed the phone from the woman’s hand and slipped it into box number 24.

I have a real bone to pick with cell phones in theaters. I suppose I almost expect the once-a-month schmuck to think he has to talk to his girlfriend or his business associate while Hamlet is pondering whether to be or not. But the sounds of ring tones bursting out like musical land mines during performances — everything from old-fashioned ring-a-dings to fancy orchestral versions of (God forbid!) “Smoke on the Water” — are enough to bring out the warrior in me. These are like people who finish drinking a beverage they bought in a kiosk and toss the empty cup or bottle in the gutter. What you’d really like to do is inflict physical punishment on them. In reality, however, there isn’t much you can do about people who refuse to use their brains. There’s a great Russian saying that goes more or less like this: An idiot’s an idiot for a very long time. But what about people who should, and do, know better?

I once sat next to a prominent young critic in a world-famous Moscow theater. The lights began to dim just before the show was to start — but what did my neighbor do? He pulled out his cell phone and began tapping away at the keys. The light from the phone’s screen cut through the darkness of the hall. I turned to this young man, whom I have known for nearly 20 years, and I said, “I hope you’re turning that thing off.”

He looked at me in surprise and said, “But I’ve got it on buzz. You’re not going to hear it.”

“I’ll hear it buzz and, anyway, the light bothers me,” I said.

The curtain had not yet opened, so I leaned over and whispered, “What is it with you that you can’t live two hours without getting somebody’s message?”

“It’s the age we live in,” he answered. I could hear a note of hurt in his voice. “We have to be plugged into all the information we need.”

I responded some smart-aleck thing about how people in Sophocles’ time did fine without text messages, and I think I muttered something about having the will to create your own era rather than buying into someone else’s idea of what it should be. I’m sure all I succeeded in doing was reinforcing my friend’s belief that I was a bit of a bore and hopelessly old-fashioned. He did turn off his phone for the first act, though, perhaps out of deference to me. But that was as far as he could take it. By the time Hamlet was lamenting the demise of poor Yorick in Act Two, he had his phone working full time again.

If you think this is an isolated case, you don’t spend much time in Moscow theaters. Perhaps my “favorite” instance was the time I was in another prominent playhouse and an even more famous critic sat one row in front of me. She couldn’t possibly have seen anything that happened on stage that night. She was absolutely engrossed in her telephone from the moment the lights dropped to the moment the applause ended. And, no, she was not just checking text messages. Nor was she sending messages. In fact, she was not even receiving calls, she was actually making them. And she was carrying on full-fledged conversations, chuckling and whispering away at a furious pace. She must have made at least a dozen calls in the course of a show that ran about 90 minutes.

Frankly, I’ve never read a thing she’s written since.

So now my hat’s off, and my phone is out, to Sergei Zhenovach and the good people at the Studio of Theatrical Art. “The River Potudan” runs for 100 minutes, and the only ringing I heard the entire time was the ringing silence of a show staged and performed as it should be: Without a single interruption from the Information Gluttons.  Hallelujah.