Please Turn Your Mobile On: Smartphones Are Now Allowed on Broadway

Instead of asking you to turn your phone off, New York theaters already allow viewers of shows such as "Chicago" and “School of Rock” to use a new app which provides dubbing and subtitles and even helps those not fluent in English

The GalaPro app
Dario Lo Presti / Getty Images

Using your phone during a movie, play or concert is considered very rude. Even just turning the phone’s screen on can destroy a dramatic moment for the person sitting behind you.

But an Israeli startup managed to shatter this taboo, paving the way for the use of phones during Broadway performances. New York theaters - prodded by a law requiring them to provide service to the sight- and hearing-impaired - are already using GalaPro’s app which was designed to help people with sight and hearing problems. It can also provide dubbing and subtitles and help people not fluent in English.

The app has now been made available without fanfare for 10 different shows including “Chicago,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “School of Rock,” “A Bronx Tale,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Anastasia,” and “The Band’s Visit.”

GalaProYonat Burlin / YouTube

Kyle Wright is the director of digital projects at the Shubert Organization theater company, which has provided the infrastructure for the use of GalaPro at 17 of its theaters. He said Broadway has set a June 1 deadline to provide services for people with seeing and hearing disabilities, though at the moment the deadline is only for services in English.

How it works

A Haaretz reporter went to see how the app works and decided to see “Chicago” again, in the company of Pipko, who’s also in charge of marketing the product in New York. Pipko, whose job includes spotting the need for improvements to the app, said GalaPro is in talks with other theater companies including the Lincoln Center Theater. It appears that ultimately the goal is to make the service available at the vast majority of Broadway theaters.

Cassie Levy as Elsa in the musical 'Frozen' at the St. James Theater in New York, March 20, 2018.
SARA KRULWICH / NYT

At the theater, we noticed people looking at us curiously and with a bit of envy – we had our smartphones out. Pipko sought to reassure me as I wondered whether using my phone would disturb the people around me. The app is used while the phone is in flight mode, so it can’t be used to make or receive calls or messages. The app also dims the light from the phone, and the subtitles are in either pink or gray.

My initial conclusion from trying out the app is that it works well but the display is sharper on a Samsung phone than on an iPhone. My phone also got cut off from the system once during the performance and Pipko reconnected me, though it’s not clear that a regular user would have dealt with the issue as easily.

Pipko has been seeing a lot of Broadway plays recently, attending them repeatedly. “It’s an industry with a turnover of billions. The theaters are full, the seats are packed and there are shows like ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ that have been running for 30 years,” he said.

“During Christmas it was totally crazy here. Everything was at capacity and they were even selling standing-room tickets. People were standing outside the theaters and waiting in the snow and rain for a ticket,” he added.

“There are shows that appeal to a specific audience; for example, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ appeals to Jews. ‘The Band’s Visit,’ which is based on an Israeli movie, is also attracting a lot of Jews. ‘School of Rock’ is attracting families. The classics ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘Chicago’ are attracting hordes of tourists from all over the world. ‘Matilda’ is geared for children. ‘Bronx Tale’ attracts people of Italian background. ‘The Color Purple’ is bringing in a lot of African-Americans.”

Free service

GalaPro has been in business for two and a half years. Its research and development activities are carried out in Israel but its market at this point is New York. GalaPro was founded by Elena Litsyn and Hagai Pipko, its chief technology officer. A successful pilot project for the technology was done in Israel at performances by Tel Aviv’s Israeli Opera Company and the Cameri Theater.

Following the pilot, the company raised $1.2 million and is now in a second round that has so far generated $1.5 million. GalaPro is also cooperating with the Shubert Organization, the largest theater operator on Broadway.

GalaPro’s business model is based mainly on selling the product to theaters, which pay operating fees. Even now, at this early stage, GalaPro is earning hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Shubert Organization. “If we manage to link up with two more major clients, we’ll already be turning a profit,” Pipko said.

The service in English is provided to theatergoers at no charge because the law requires the theater to provide the service to people with disabilities. “When it comes to subtitles and dubbing in foreign languages, at this stage, the service is provided for free, but in the future tourists will be charged,” Pipko said.

When asked how much, he responded it would be somewhere around $5 to $7. “Not a sky-high amount,” he said. “People are currently paying $200 for a ticket on Broadway and the cost of the product is identical to that of a bottle of something to drink or a snack on Broadway.” It’s not clear when the fee for GalaPro will be introduced.

Wright of the Shubert Organization says the company believes it has a good product in GalaPro. The company doesn’t have to invest in hardware and the synchronization works well, Wright said. Several challenges are currently being worked on, including training staff on how to use the product and overseeing its use by the audience.

At that moment, Shubert is trying it out with a group of hearing- and sight-impaired people. Naturally it’s impossible to meet everyone’s needs, Wright admitted, but he said he believed it would meet the needs of many audience members with disabilities. It’s also a way of attracting people who usually don’t attend Broadway plays.

Wright said the law is more of a regulation enacted at the industry’s request. The theaters, not the police, enforce it and there is no problem in this case, he said.

Asked whether the product might provide a way for theatergoers to surreptitiously receive text messages or emails or even access to the internet, Wright said he wasn’t concerned. Ushers can see who's using a smartphone for the right reason and who's using it simply to surf the internet.

When GalaPro is on, the smartphone screen is dim and in shades of gray, black and pink. The app is designed so as not to disturb the audience or the performers, Wright said. But he acknowledged one problem that’s currently being worked on – attempts by audience members to record the show.