The lights dim, the curtain rises and… a cell phone rings. The audience shifts its focus from the stage to the source of the distraction. The actors, senses amplified, scan the audience for the culprit.
But what if “the culprit” is, in fact, one of us? What happens when we deny ourselves and our colleagues the same respect we expect of an audience?
Not long ago, I saw an actor walk onstage wearing his Bluetooth — in a period play. A singer missed his cue while texting in the wings. During recent rehearsals, I watched actors tweeting onstage while the director worked with someone else.
It was at such a rehearsal that I recalled being a student of Ann Reinking’s, who told us, “When the director speaks, nobody speaks.” She meant this not only as a courtesy, but because at least half of what we learned was from watching her work with other performers. Were cell phones as prevalent then as they are today, I’m certain she would have included them in her disclaimer.
Every night, audiences come to the theatre and decide whether they are going to return — to spend a portion of their paycheck and share a living experience with the actors onstage — or watch television for free in the comfort of their home. Unlike TV or film, the theatre is a medium of live exchange, where the frequency of the company entrains — and hopefully transforms — the audience. As we all know, done right, it can be a life-changing experience.
It would seem like a given, then, that the power of an acting company lies in its ability to breathe together, share eye contact, and relate in the spoken as well as unspoken realms — practices of presence slowly being eroded by our dependence on texting, tweeting and Facebooking our experiences before actually having them.
In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, author Nicolas Carr argues that the continual use of handheld devices alters the brain’s neuroplasticity, depleting our ability to focus and interpret the world with more than just a passing glance. In The New York Times’ article, “Attached to Technology and Paying a Price,” scientists compare the “dopamine squirt” triggered by web surfing to that of a drug high, debunking the myth that we multitask more effectively in the face of today’s hyperstimulation. What a paradox: the very technology designed to bring us closer together actually dulls our capacity to drop into the present, deepen our listening, and sense what is really going on around us — an actor’s most essential tools.
The poet Rumi wrote, “When you are everywhere, you are nowhere. When you are somewhere, you are everywhere.” In our quest to be “everywhere” — asserting constant evidence of our existence online — are we, in fact, reconditioning our nervous system to miss the greatest pleasure our profession proffers: true communion with the play, our company and the audience?
There’s no app for that.
Erik Liberman is an actorvist, writer and director whose career highlights include: Harold Prince’s Lovemusik on Broadway, the world tour of Mabou Mines Dollhouse, the North American tour of Fiddler on the Roof, Into the Woods (Connecticut Critics Circle Award), Merrily We Roll Along (Helen Hayes Award), Reefer Madness! (Ovation and Garland Awards), and performances as Groucho Marx Off-Broadway and at The White House. A Moth storyteller, he co-authored Wisdom from an Empty Mind with his father, Dr. Jacob Liberman, and is featured in the upcoming AEA Centennial book, Performance of the Century. He is the recipient of honors from The Kurt Weill Foundation, Def Comedy Jam and Young Arts, and studied at The Royal National Theatre of Great Britain, École Philippe Gaulier and The Groundlings. Upcoming projects include the film Fog and the web series, Lady Business. www.erikliberman.org.