While walking through the Vivian Beaumont lobby the other day I heard a youngish audience member say to a slightly less youngish audience member: “When you know what day you’re arriving on the Cape, be sure to device me.” “Device” is not yet included in any standard dictionary as a verb, but I had run across this usage before: in the futuristic section of David Mitchell’s 2014 novel, The Bone Clocks. The Beaumont conversation marked the first time I had heard the word as a verb aloud.
I passed through the Beaumont lobby and made my way to the Beaumont dressing rooms, wondering: How have devices changed life backstage? (Shows for Days, downstairs in the Beaumont, which, alas, ends this weekend, has been a viral reminder of how devices have changed life during a performance.) I’m not going to offer a treatise on the subject, just to say: seven years ago, during the LCT production of South Pacific, and, to a slightly lesser extent, four years ago, when the Beaumont housed War Horse, when I passed through the canteen area backstage 45 minutes before curtain, I encountered a bustling little hive of activity. Cast members were chatting, making tea, grabbing some fortification before performance.
Forty-five minutes before King and I show-time, by contrast, that area is much less likely to house a collective chat-fest. It is still busy between shows on a two-show day, but in general it is much less active. I attribute this change, yes, to devices – cellphones, especially. When I walk around backstage an hour before a show, actors are much more likely to be in their dressing rooms, staring at their phones. They still engage in warming-up, but the phone has become a part of that routine, just as it has become part of everything else in our lives.
I’m not about to lament the way that devices seem to have lessened the amount of time actors use to bond with each other. The King and I cast is plenty bonded, and, besides, devices offer myriad ways for people to get to know each other apart from the face-to-face physical interaction. I am simply saying that backstage culture is now quieter. It is as much about taking selfies for posting on Facebook and Instagram as it is about actors socializing in ways which the world will remain forever in the dark about. What’s special about being part of a production is no longer the sense that actors are the lucky participants in a semi-private ritual but that they are the lucky participants in a semi-public ritual that they love so much that they have to share their happiness – nightly, hourly, and, in some cases, almost every minute -- with every breathing being in the universe. Everything is theater.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.