The Actor, The Audience and The Phone: The problem of mobiles in theatre

Disruptive audiences are a point of contention for most regular theatre-goers, who are fed up to the back teeth of other audience members spoiling their theatre experience with the vast range of annoying habits that unfortunately seem to be becoming commonplace occurrences.

The most often heard complaints usually concern people talking through a performance, rustling sweet wrappers, and of course, the big one: mobile phones. Technology continues to advance and we as a society are becoming increasingly reliant on it in our day-to-day lives. Mobile phones are everywhere you look now and may as well be permanently attached to our hands as the need to constantly be in contact with the rest of the world has become something of an addiction. This is irritating enough, but when you add live theatre to the equation it becomes a huge problem, and one which doesn’t offer an easy answer.

I’ve been to plenty of performances where I’ve been annoyed by fellow audience members who just can’t refrain from checking Facebook, texting friends, snapping photos and even taking calls on their mobiles during the course of the show. It’s probably the most complained-about offence in the ‘Theatre Etiquette’ booklet for theatre-goers, but if we find it distracting, what about the actors?

Live performance is challenging enough for an actor (there are no re-takes in the theatre), but imagine how much more of a challenge it is when you factor mobile phone technology into it.
Screen-lights and photo flashes, being on the look-out for illegal filming and competing for the attention of the audience…these are all added complications for the stage actor which mobile phones and their users are responsible for, and while they do their best to ignore these distractions most of the time, there are instances when they no longer can.

A story has been circulating concerning an incident at the Jermyn Theatre last week in which one of the main cast members in the production running there broke character during a performance to address the suspicion an audience member was filming them. Jemima Hyde and David Judge are currently starring in Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, the Athol Fugard play in which the two lead actors appear on stage naked for the majority. During this particular performance, they both became aware of a man in the front row using his mobile and grew concerned that he was attempting to film them, at which point Judge stopped the performance to ask him to turn it off. The phone was checked at the end of the play, but no photo or video evidence was found.

This is hardly an isolated incident however. There are many other examples of actors halting performances and/or breaking character to give mobile phone users in the audience a ticking-off. Kevin Spacey recently made headlines for telling off an audience member whose phone was ringing in the middle of his one-man show, Clarence Darrow, at the Old Vic, stopping to warn them that “If you don’t answer that, I will.” James McAvoy also confronted an audience member who was filming a performance when he appeared in the title role of Macbeth at Trafalgar Studios, and the late Richard Griffith guilty of numerous outbursts in both History Boys at the National Theatre andHeroes at the Wyndham Theatre, caused by ringing mobiles. It happens over on Broadway too, with Patti LuPone and Hugh Jackman both examples of performers who’ve succumbed to ‘stage rage’ over audience member’s mobile phones.

It’s not surprising that many actors of both stage and screen have lost their cool due to the interruption of a scene. The actor’s job requires them to adopt the persona of a different character and every actor has his or her own method of achieving that. It’s not unfathomable that disrupting them in this process sometimes causes an irate reaction (who remembers that audio recording of Christian Bale screaming at a crew member on the set of Terminator Salvation?) Mobile phones can be majorly distracting for an actor performing live on stage, as well as for the audience members absorbed in the story being told on stage – a mobile ringing in the middle of a serious scene disrupts the flow of the performance for both the actor and the theatre-goers. Similarly, an actor being forced to break character because of mobile phones spoils the magic of the fantasy for the audience.

Jermyn Street Theatre’s artistic director Anthony Biggs recently said:“Their job as an audience member in a theatre is to participate. They may not be speaking, but they’re involved in a conversation with the actors.” I couldn’t agree more. Live theatre creates an invisible connection between the actors on stage and the audience, and distractions such as mobile phones weaken that connection. If it reaches the point that the performance is stopped or an actor breaks character, the connection is broken completely and it can’t always be re-made. The theatre experience is not the same as going to the cinema. Live performance is a unique art, and as such, needs to be respected.

So what exactly can be done about the usage of mobile phones in the theatre then? Biggs spoke out after the incident in Statements to call for mobiles to be banned, saying: “The only solution is a zero tolerance policy – if people are caught using their phones during a performance, they won’t be welcome at the venue again. It has to be like that, it has to be draconian, because otherwise people will ignore it.”

Further discussions have led to suggestions of using mobile-blocking technology or confiscating mobiles upon entering he theatre, neither of which are realistic options, let’s face it. There are some who take the ‘deal with it’ viewpoint on the issue, arguing that actors take on stage roles knowing what they entail. Perhaps they have a point. There’s no denying that mobiles are a distracting presence in the theatre though. Can their use can be prevented completely? I suspect the answer has to be no. Pre-show announcements regarding not using mobile phones and stricter enforcement of this rule would help, but people have too much of an attachment to them nowadays and separating one from the other (even for a few hours) with every audience would be an impossible task to undertake. So get used to it theatre-goers. Odds are that you’re going to encounter more inconsiderate audience members in the future, but at the end of the day, the show must go on!

By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25

Thursday 17th July 2014

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