This American Life Live made us use our cell phones in theaters this last Thursday, May 10, 2012. It was great. In fact is was so engaging that we made music together. The audience stomped and snapped their fingers along to music that OK Go was playing live. The instructions were: if you have an iPhone or an Android you were to download the This American Life Live app before coming to the show. The app was written in part by one of the members of OK Go to enable the audience to play a backup part to the music that the band was playing. Those without smart phones had a role too. They stopped and snapped their fingers. The cues for this were scrolled down a split screen (with the band on the other half of the split screen) in a similar fashion to the cues for Guitar Hero or Rock Band (though actually a bit easier to read). The warm up song was a hand bell version of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit followed by Ok GO's Needing/Getting. The theater rang with music from over the speakers but was lent depth by the sounds generated by the mobile devices. There was a palpable sense of excitement as people tried to keep up with the musical instructions and percussive stopping directions. It was easy to sense the engagement and the audience was giddy and laughter rang out after the collective performance. All in all it was a great success.
The success of this event want predicated upon the idea that the rules will have to be broken. Ira Glass stated during his introduction to the piece using cell phones that he, himself had to call the heads of two movie theater companies to clear the usage of cell phones in the theaters he was using. The convention of not using cell phones helps to create a positive experience for other patrons during a regular show. The usage of these devices as part of the show was a refreshing and creative way to break the rules and to let the cell phone juju out. Interestingly after the cell phone piece no one in the audience ventured to use their phones.
Perhaps the best and most effective way to discourage cell phone use in a theater is to provide engaging and captivating content. A sure sign that a performance is failing to engage is cell phone use which is an indicator that checking out is occurring. A recap of the This American Life Live event has links and images of the performance including a Terry Gross and Mike Birbiglia short film which is priceless.