In my head, the title ‘the-etiquette’ sounded far better compared to how it actually looks written down but I do hope you’ll look past my awful pun in the interest of me giving my contribution to a few of the debates surrounding theatre etiquette (the-etiquette… get it?). As you may have guessed by the title (if the pun didn’t stop you from continuing to read the post) this is going to be a little, friendly chat about mobile phone usage in the theatre. And by that I mean it’s highly possible that it will be a long, ranty essay about how bloomin’ annoying it is when people use their phone during a show!
This is something I’d really never noticed as a big issue before until fairly recently. My first experience with the ‘great mobile phone scandal’ came about 6 months ago at a performance of Wicked. Not only were the group of people sitting next to me chatting throughout, but the two girls in front of me were SNAPCHATTING during the performance. And not even of the stage, no, these were relentless selfie-takers with each picture most probably having a caption along the lines of ‘at the theatre lOL’; ‘WICKED! ha hA! c00l’ ‘my baE’ (let me just point out that I couldn’t actually see the captions in question, but I would imagine they were somewhere along these lines). I understand if you’re excited to be at the theatre, by all means take a picture before the show starts and send it to your friends if you want, but nothing is important enough for you to need to be on your phone during the show. Not only is it really stupid from the phone abuser’s point of view – they’d more than likely paid good money to be there and were wasting it on their phones rather than enjoying the performance – but it’s also really, really distracting for anyone sitting near them. You can’t concentrate for more than a few minutes before you see a little light flash in the corner of your eye and you’ve been pulled out of the performance to see what the distraction is.
Another point I’d like to add here is the amount of disrespect going on your phone shows towards the actors in the show. Yes, they definitely can see you. Especially in a small theatre. Cue my next encounter with the great mobile phone scandal, a performance of Once at the beautiful Phoenix theatre in February. Again, two people in front of me – this time serial texters (admittedly slightly less annoying than than the relentless snapchatters, but poor behaviour nonetheless). Okay so let’s imagine for a second you’re on stage (let’s be honest, it’s where I belong), in the zone, doing what you believe is a great performance, and suddenly your concentration is drawn to someone on their phone. Not only is this distracting, but it shows the actors that you’re really not that interested in what’s going on – something they clearly don’t want to be thinking mid-show.
Unfortunately I feel like this is definitely a problem that occurs more with certain types of production and in certain areas of the theatre. I usually find myself in cheaper parts of the theatre when I witness the problem and it also tends to be the more mainstream West End musicals that suffer from the mobile phone fanatics (the struggle to come up with a nickname for these people is real… I’m all out of hilarious puns since the the-etiquette stroke of genius). I am yet to witness mobile phone abuse at a play, or in an off-West End theatre. I’ve also never had it happen in the stalls, maybe because people have paid more for the seats so want to fully enjoy the show, or maybe because they’re too afraid of being spotted by the performers. So how can we stop this problem? We could take a New York approach and ban mobile phones at public performances – but I don’t think we should stop people taking photos and using their phones before the show and during the interval. I think what’s really needed is for people to realise that this just isn’t something that can continue – it’s distracting, disrespectful and just downright dumb. I’d love to see people be a bit more confrontational when dealing with the problem too (being a bit hypocritical here as I’ve never actually got up the courage to do this) but try telling the person it’s distracting and ask them (kindly) to turn off their phone for the rest of the show. Maybe with the right amount of people power behaviour will change and we can all get back to enjoying the show without the fear of an unwanted bright light ruining our experience.