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

How To Solve The Cell Phone Problem On Broadway

With growing frequency, 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?

Startup companies are helping to combat mobile phone usage at and their solutions seem 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 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.

These pouches are not that new, as they have been used at many schools around the country, but using it at live performances is new for the startup company. These “Phone-free shows” are becoming a trendy phenomenon for many performances. 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 staff distributes the pouches and assists customers by putting their phones and all other personal smart devices (like Apple Watch) 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.

Doing it this way, as opposed to keeping the pouches in an outside locker, avoids potential confusion. This also prevents companies from legal trouble for personal damages or loss. At the end of the show, audience members unlock their cases with the proprietary mechanisms. The next iteration of these pouches will use an RF receiver that will unlock all the cases in the entire theatre at once and may include a zip that allows the user emergency access.

Designated phone use areas

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.

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 feel disconnected from their audiences. It used to be that when stars made it, they would perform for their audiences live in a big arena and see all of their fans in person as they sing with or watch them in awe as they performed. But these days 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.

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

Less exposure

Many careers have been made or destroyed over mobile phone videos that have been posted from live performances. By implementing pouches, performers may lose out on social media views. 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.

Safety risk

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.

Human error

Another downside to the locking phone pouch system comes in the form of human error. 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

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 such pouches at live shows, artists are also mitigating their risks of potential career enders. This may be the real reason why Dave Chappelle and also Freestyle Love Supreme have chosen to use locking pouches, 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.