Comedian Chris Rock is serious when he says cellphones get under his skin.
The ubiquitous personal electronic device — used during shows for snapping selfies, taking blurry pictures from 25 rows back, tweeting, texting and recording weirdly distorted video with terrible sound quality — is not welcome during Rock’s upcoming performances at Orlando’s Dr. Phillips Center. Rock is among the increasing number of performers irritated by constant cellphone use — and he has done something about it.
Before entering the downtown center’s Walt Disney Theater, those who attend Rock’s Sunday and Monday shows will be required to lock their phones in special cases, though they will keep the devices with them and will be able to use them in the lobby.
For a generation used to having constant and instant access to their phone, this could be a shock. But the Dr. Phillips Center has been “over-communicating” with patrons, through emails and its website, to make sure they are prepared, a spokesman said.
“We’re looking at it as a great way for the audience to be present for a collective experience, which is why we’re all here in the first place,” said Robert Jones, director of public relations. “That ‘live’ feeling is never going to be captured on a phone or with any technology. You’re sort of missing it if you’re looking through a screen.”
That sense of “being in the moment” is what inspired Graham Dugoni, 30, to found Yondr three years ago. The San Francisco-based company created the technology that locks and unlocks the protective cellphone cases.
“It’s basically about helping people,” said Dugoni of the Yondr technology. “People want to be swept up in a shared experience.”
The company has 12 full-time employees and dozens of part-timers who form a “ground network,” assisting venues where the technology is being used. When the phones are locked in the case, the screens can’t be seen but owners can feel their phones vibrate. If they need access, they can return to the lobby, where the case will be unlocked for them.
Although Dugoni started Yondr with a eye toward performances, other uses have quickly developed. Companies have rented the technology to block phones at movie premieres, such as the Los Angeles debut of “Star Wars: Rogue One.” Others have used the service at private parties, weddings and similar social gatherings.
“Apparently, it’s big in the bar mitzvah world,” Dugoni said.
More than 300 U.S. school districts are using the technology to create phone-free zones to help students focus, Dugoni said, and the company has branched out to Europe.
The fact celebrities such as Rock, comedian Dave Chappelle, singer Alicia Keys and rock band Guns N’ Roses are onboard with Yondr has made giving up their phones cooler in the eyes of students, Dugoni said.
A spokeswoman for Live Nation, the presenter of Rock’s current Total Blackout tour, said he had no official statement on the topic. But Rock’s views on how phones create a chilling effect on the development of new comic material is well-documented.
“It’s scary, because the thing about comedians is that you’re the only ones who practice in front of a crowd,” he said in a 2014 interview with Vulture.com. “If you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.”
Jones applauded the commitment to artistic integrity.
“I think it’s cool there’s a line drawn in the sand by these comedians to protect their art,” he said.
Drew Carr wasn’t aware of the no-cellphone policy when he received tickets to one of Rock’s Orlando shows as a gift. But the southwest Orange County resident understands.
“I’m totally fine with it,” he said. “From the artist standpoint, I think he’s trying to keep the experience authentic to the people who support him through ticket sales.”
Carr, 32, enjoys improv comedy shows at Pointe Orlando, but says “people are always on their phone.” He counts himself among the guilty.
“My wife is annoyed when I get on my phone at the improv,” he said. “It is kind of disrespectful.”
In the early days of Yondr, people weren’t as nonchalant as Carr.
“I really don't understand the need for this or why a venue would voluntarily inflict this on their customers,” wrote one commenter on an Internet article about Yondr’s launch.
More ominously, another wrote: “I won't refuse to go to a venue that uses these, but I'll be sure to bring along a pair of scissors.” (For the record, scissors won’t help — and items with a blade are never allowed in the Dr. Phillips Center.)
But Dugoni says attitudes toward phone usage already are changing.
“It takes time for etiquette to evolve,” he said. “People hadn’t figured out that [cellphones] can detract from a live experience. But more and more people are starting to realize it.”
As for himself, perhaps unsurprisingly Dugoni has no problem disconnecting. Of his cellphone, he says with a laugh: “It is a work tool only.”