The Science of Cell Phones and Curtain Speeches


There are times I wish I was a social scientist. Nothing answers a question as definitely, for me, as evidence-based reasoning. Unfortunately, when it comes to curtain speeches and their ability to actually convince audience members to silence their cell phones, we largely seem to be working from received wisdom instead. We give the same speeches we’ve always given – “Please take a minute to silence your cell phones,” or a variation thereof – rather than experimenting to determine whether other approaches might get better results.

Let’s imagine a year-long test, conducted at perhaps a dozen theaters around the country.  Three different curtain speeches could be recorded – one with a fairly nondescript message, one with a more aggressive message, and one with a Southwest Airlines style comedic message – then played an equal number of times at each theater. The number of cell phone rings could be tallied throughout the season, and then we’d know with a bit more certainty which approach worked more effectively.

It’s not hard to imagine similar experiments, either, designed to answer a variety of related questions. Is the curtain speech more effective at getting audience members to silence their cell phones when the person giving the speech is holding a cell phone as a prop? How does a curtain speech compare with no curtain speech at all? Do certain audience profiles – older or younger, for example – respond differently to different message styles?

Then, of course, there are important questions that could be asked about the other needs that are typically met (or that could be met) by curtain speeches. Often they’re used to thank donors for their contributions… but in thanking generous patrons, what effects are we having (if any) on the rest of the house? Often curtain speeches serve as an opportunity to sell patrons on season ticket packages or tickets to future shows – the theatrical equivalent, in some ways, of the advertising that certain movie chains screen in their theaters before the feature film begins. By introducing a sales message at that moment, are we changing how audiences respond to what they subsequently see on stage?

I’m certain there are many anecdotes and traditions that speak to all of these questions… but anecdotes and traditions don’t make for hard evidence, and hard evidence is necessary for reasoned conclusions.

Have there been any studies? Does anyone know a good sociologist or behavioral economist with a passion for theater who might like to do a few? I’m sure we’d all be smarter for the effort. Heck, if all we do is reduce the number of cell phones that ring during critical theatrical moments, won’t that be reward enough?

  • December 15, 2010
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