Cell phone usage by New York City audience member's change at Broadway Theatres as artists demand more control of their performances with locking phone pouches

On very rare occasions, Broadway theatre-goers may pull out their mobile phones to record the live show, or they may have their cell phones ring during a live Broadway performance, which can be very distracting for the performers and the audience alike . The stage performers can put at risk when the bright lights of a cell phone blinds them making it impossible to see the edge of the Broadway stage, with the potential for them to fall off the stage. Broadway theatre owners have contemplated many ways in the past to stop New York City audience members from doing this, and a new solution is now being tested with some of the younger-demographic based shows. These Broadway shows have seen an excess number of fans trying to record the live performances.

Cell Phone Usage at a Live Show
Cell Phone Usage at Live Performance

What are Locking Phone Pouches and Who Makes Them?

A few startup companies are helping to combat mobile phone usage at Broadway shows and their solutions seem almost draconian. The official objective is to “help audiences become more engaged while watching live performances” but the effect may be the opposite. One new company is Yondr Inc. and they are trying to help the audience engagement by locking up audience members mobile phones and other smart devices in a proprietary locking pouch before the show begins. The audience gets to keep their phone in the locking pouch for the entirety performance. These pouches are not that new, as they have been used at many high schools and middle schools around the country already, but using it at live performances is new development for the startup company. These shows are called “Phone-free shows” and they are becoming the new trendy phenomenon for many social-media-addicted Millennials and Gen-Z’ers alike. Because locking phone pouches prevent people from using their cell phones during live shows, performing artists and audience members can be more in-the-moment and pay better attention to the show without the distractions of their personal smart devices. Yondr was founded by Graham Dugoni in 2014 and is beginning to gain traction on Broadway this year.

How Does it Work?

When a person enters a Phone-free event, The theatre staff at venue hands out the locking phone pouches and assists customers by putting their phones and all other personal smart devices (like Apple Watch) away into the pouches that are locked for the entire performance. The phones slip right into the soft covered and typically branded pouches and lock with a magnetic and tangible “click”. Guests then keep possession of their locked cases throughout the show. This stops phone use at shows and doing it this way, as opposed to keeping the pouches in an outside locker, avoids potential confusion when picking up the devices after a show. This also prevents these companies from getting into any legal trouble for personal damages or losing customer devices. At any Phone-free event, there are designated “Phone Use Areas” where guests can go to, to unlock their cases and use their cell phones freely. These areas are supervised by company staff to ensure that people do not leave the area with an unlocked phone pouch. At the end of the show, audience members must go back to the company desks to unlock their cases with the proprietary mechanisms, much like the security tags at department stores. The next iteration of these phone pouches will use an RF receiver that will unlock all the cases in the entire theatre all at once and may also include an emergency zip that allows the user access during an emergency..

How Will This Change Affect Broadway?

This product, or any similar idea, will probably not be used for most traditional Broadway shows. This is due to the fact that most Broadway theatre-goers already respect the courtesy rules about not using smart devices during live Broadway performances, and the ushers are typically very good at policing this policy. If a person pulls out their phone during a performance, an usher will be on top of them in seconds. Recently there have been many more non-standard show productions being performed in Broadway theatres. These productions have opted to use the locking phone pouch service from Yondr and include the Dave Chappelle comedy show and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Freestyle Love Supreme. Even Donald Glover (Childish Gambino) is now using this service at his live shows, albeit not on Broadway.

Celebrities Adopt Locking Phone Pouch Solutions
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Dave Chappelle, Donald Glover (Childish Gambino)

Why Would Performers Not Want Audience Members Using Their Phones?

Many performers complain that they are feeling disconnected from their audiences at a live show. It used to be that when stars made it big enough, they would get to perform for their audiences live in a big arena, performers would get to see all of their fans in person as they sing with or watch them in awe as they performed. But these days, when performers perform for their live audiences, all they see is the backs of every audience members phone with a bright LED cell phone light glaring right back at them as the audience records the performer on stage for posting later online. Artists complain that people are not truly engaged anymore, as the audience themselves are watching the show through their cell phones instead of experiencing it first hand. This makes the audience miss the real point of seeing the show live, and in-person and leads to an audience of cameramen, instead of engaged fans driving the momentum of the show.

The Downsides of Cell Phone Banning

Many careers have been made or destroyed over mobile phone videos that have been posted from live performances. By implementing locking phone pouches at venues, performers may lose out on social media views that the audience members potentially may have gotten them. While these views usually help the artist grow, sometimes they can do the opposite. Other times there may be a valid reason to record the act, especially if it is lewd or defamatory. One other situation is an emergency where the audience is at risk of some kind of injury or attack.

With the implementation of locking phone pouches, an increase to audience engagement may come, however there is a high risk associated with the solution, should an emergency occur. For example, if a fire engulfed a venue or an active shooter rushed onto the premises, all audience members would be helpless to call police as their phones are inaccessible due to the locked case. No one would be able to reach out to call 9-1-1 in order to contact the authorities for help, or their family members to alert them of the situation they are in. Theatre staff state they will be on hand to assist everyone in need, but they may not be able to unlock their customers phones based on a potential shelter-in-place, or if an entire theatre’s audience is attempting to escape the building all at once because the bullets are flying. Ultimately, cell phones are an incredibly useful tool for sending information in times of an emergency, and restricting access to said tool may prove deadly.

Another downside to the locking phone pouch system comes in the form of human error. Though the idea behind the product is that audience members will not have access to their devices, that lack of accessibility could end up disrupting performances to a greater extent in certain instances. If someone forgets to put their phone on silent before locking it in a pouch, the phone might get a call right in the middle of a live performance. The whole theatre would be subject to hearing it ring in its entirety, as there is no way to get into the case and decline the call once the locking pouch has been locked.

Michael Richards Laugh Factory 2006
Michael Richards Indecent at the Laugh Factory 2006

Michael Richards Expletives get Caught on a Cell Phone in 2006

A good example of when it was good that a live performer was recorded was the case of the Michael Richards incident in 2006 when his career fell into shambles following his racist diatribe. The famed Seinfeld actor went on a racist rant at Hollywood California’s Laugh Factory. Unfortunately for Richards, his entire bit was recorded by an audience members cell phone and was later posted online. This clip of Michael Richards has over 34 million views across various online video streaming sites. On top of all this, his story is still being shared in new articles and podcasts of what not to do while performing live.

By implementing locking phone pouches at live shows, artists are also mitigating their risks of potential mistakes that could ruin their career. This may be the real reason why Dave Chappelle and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Freestyle Love Supreme have chosen to use locking pouches to stop video recording at their Broadway shows, just in case they say something too outrageous. The audience does not want this service, but the idea is being strongly pushed by the performers as it protects their brand, to which Michael Richards can readily testify.