Tony Award winner Annaleigh Ashford has had to deal with a lot playing a dog on Broadway over the last few weeks — but an audience member taking a cell phone call during a crucial scene was one she probably wasn’t prepared for.
During last week’s matinee performance of Sylvia, the cell phone of an audience member near the front of the stage rang during the emotional climax of the show. While rude, it’s unfortunately the reality of live theater in the 21st century that such things happen. However, this audience member proceeded to actually take the phone call. The conversation and the “shush!” reactions from the surrounding audience members was so disruptive that Ashford and co-star Matthew Broderick had to restart the scene.
Speaking to Playbill after the incident, Ashford points out that since she plays a dog she has had a creative response to phones going off in the theater. She reveals, “We’re very lucky to be in a play that is set up so that if a cell phone rings, I can bark at it. It’s much easier to recognize and acknowledge it and handle it lightly than in other plays. If the same phone goes off more than once, it’s usually somebody who doesn’t know cell phones very well.” However, in this instance it wasn’t a one-and-done accident. Ashford continues, “Well, in this case, the second time it rang she picked it up and answered, and starting talking. It turned into a full conversation. The audience around her started shushing her but she kept talking. We could hear it on stage.”
She admits that on one hand she believes anyone who answers a phone during a performance must have a damn good reason to do so. She says, “As an actor I always think that if someone does pick up a phone during a performance, something dire must be happening in their lives that is more important than theatre—some kind of tragedy they were attending to, or something. It’s very uncomfortable if you don’t know why they would pick up a phone and talk in the middle of a show.”
In this instance, Ashford tried to “bark” at the caller, but the damage had been done. She says, “It became very clear that the audience was so distracted that they weren’t in the world of the play any more… Because of where we were in the play, Matthew and I realized we couldn’t just pick up where left off. So we told the audience, ‘We’re going to go back, if you don’t mind.’ That got applause. We briefly talked about where to go back to, then Matthew led me into a bow, we took positions, and started the scene again. The audience was with us 100 percent.”
Though most actors would prefer to forget about such experiences, Ashford decided to talk about it to bring attention to why such distracting audience behavior affects performers on stage. She explains, “As actors it is our duty to help educate people on this topic, and help people to understand how much it not only disrupts the storytelling, it disrupts the experience of a lot of people who have spent a lot of money to have that experience. I don’t know what was going on or why they felt they needed to answer the phone. My only hope is that she and her family are OK—and I hope she never does it again.”