This week we’ve seen a lot of discussion over banning phones in theatres, sparked by a single case at a performance of Athol Fugard’s Statements, but this happens more often than you think. Whether it is illegal recordings or disruptive phone calls, there’s nothing new about hearing a tale of disgust and disturbance caused by a mobile phone in the theatre and I sit here imagining just how many of you have been affected by this at some point. As an avid theatre fan I certainly have and as expected it came close to ruining my experience that evening.
Matilda the Musical: 4th September 2013. Myself and two friends were lucky enough to grab some £5 tickets thanks to the RSC Key (which all of you 16-24 year olds should definitely check out). Of course, at £5 a ticket you are happy to go along with most things, good or bad, but there’s a limit to one’s patience even at a bargain price. We were seated in the very last row of the upper circle but the seats were still good although we were pretty much surrounded by a large group of chatty women.
The first act went by quite enjoyably but when we settled down for the second said women started to chat quite loudly. I wouldn’t have been too fussed but ‘When I Grow Up’ that opens the act is one of my favourite numbers to see live, and quite frankly when six or so very talented children take to the stage to sing such a beautiful song it is disgustingly rude to talk over it. After a few sharp side glances they soon settled down, only to bring out their phones ten minutes later and start messaging each other. EACH OTHER! They were sitting metres away. By the end of the show they were actually calling on their phones and we had had enough. I was disgusted. I should have said something but is it really my job to be doing that? No. I have paid to see a show in peace. Yet did we see a single usher in sight to deal with the problem? No.
I feel for performers who endure this behaviour more often than us theatregoers. I actually commend the actors at the Jermyn Theatre for protecting the production and pointing the guy out but under no circumstance should an actor have to come out of character to deal with bad-mannered spectators. This is their livelihood. How would office workers react if someone was disrespectful in the workplace? I’m sure a lot more would be done about that, so it begs the question, where were the ushers?
Don’t get me wrong, ushers have a tough job on their hands. A close friend of mine is a (very good) West End usher and I hear the stories; I understand it’s no easy feat. But even in my situation not once did someone come over to address the problem. Even at the very back of the Cambridge Theatre the audience deserves the full experience and equal treatment. At the Jermyn Theatre ushers should have dealt with this earlier – way before an actor even considered addressing it themselves. Theatre managers and supervisors have a duty here too. If someone is using a phone, told to put it away by ushers yet continues they should be removed by the manager and banned from future performances, simple as. I just don’t think this is being done enough and it leaves me wondering why!
I understand that the world has changed and mobile phones are a big part of daily life but the same rules apply as in a cinema or when talking to someone face to face – it is rude and inconsiderate to start tapping on your phone at the same time. What I don’t understand is how people would pay up to £100 for a theatre ticket to then ignore the performance and post/tweet/chat/text or even call as I found. If you aren’t interested just don’t go!
However on the other side of the argument I believe a blanket ban on phones in theatres is unnecessary and harder to police. As an avid tweeter I have found the rise of the#IntervalTweet to be a great marketing tool. I am happy to support productions that interact with me during the interval when I tweet them about how much I am enjoying the show. Mini live audience reviews; I think it is a great way of promoting theatre in the age of social media and under a phone ban this wouldn’t be possible. No, what needs to be done is introducing harsher punishments for those caught breaching the rules and the re-educating of audiences on the complete disrespect of using a phone during a show. The ‘I wouldn’t dream of doing it’ nature needs to be reintroduced to the theatre environment and backed up by no-nonsense staff members who aren’t afraid to step in. Until then I fear we will read more stories in the news of innocent actors forced to stop these vile creatures who cannot bear to remove themselves from an insignificant little box for just an hour of their lives.