Will theatres buckle to the wishes of the selfie generation?

ellen degeneres oscar selfie theatre camera Acceptable in theatres? Ellen DeGeneres' Oscar selfie sets the scene
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Last week the National Gallery in London confirmed that it had dropped its no photography policy, with the Evening Standard reporting that gallery staff found it “increasingly difficult” to distinguish between guests using their phones to research paintings and those trying to take pictures.

How long will it now be before the National Theatre relaxes its ban on photography during performances? And the rest of the theatre world, too? How else are those performances captured without it?

The quiet, undisturbed contemplation of art, after all, is not too much different to an attempt to watch a theatre production without photographic disruption. But the feeling of need to take a personal souvenir from a performance is arguably even greater in the theatre, since a work of art is static and unchanging, whereas no two live performances are ever the same.

Many fans already covertly film performances anyway. Long before Kevin Spacey decided to berate an audience member for an unsilenced phone, Patti LuPone stopped a performance of Gypsy on Broadway to publicly admonish a theatregoer who was taking photographs. But It’s notable that even as she unleashed her tirade, another audience member was recording the event so caught her protest for all to hear:

Three times! Three times you took a picture! You heard the announcement in the beginning, you heard the announcement at intermission. Who do you think you are? This is the theatre! I have to say this. We have forgotten our public manners. And we have forgotten that we are in a community. And this is the theatre.  And all of you, every single one of you except for that person, has respect. And I and the rest of this company appreciate it. Thank you.

I’m conflicted here: I love what LuPone said. But I also love it that I her rage is available for me to hear personally. It’s in entirely unpredictable moments that this that theatre magic happens. But it also usually evaporates in the moment, too, and that is part of its magic; it doesn’t typically live on through YouTube.

But the attempt to hold onto a theatrical moment as a souvenir — proof that you were there — is widely prevalent, with audiences routinely snapping pictures of the pre-show curtain or the post-show curtain call. I don’t object to those; the actual performance itself isn’t disrupted in the process. And that’s the problem with photography of live events: whereas taking a picture of an artwork won’t change its make-up, a disruption at a live performance can throw the actor, and may even prompt a LuPone-like response.

A Guardian editorial on the National Gallery’s new photography policy asked,

Why do we go to art galleries? The standard answer is to look at the art. And in theory that ought to be the end of the matter. Except that in practice it is not the whole story – and never has been. Ever since galleries have existed, visitors have flocked to them not just to see but to be seen in the act of seeing. As anyone who has got close to the Mona Lisa will know, the most famous galleries have long been secular cathedrals of mass pilgrimage. But increasingly, today, many people prefer to photograph and be photographed rather than to look.

And that’s the bigger problem. Anyone who is viewing a piece of art or performance through their camera lens or mobile screen isn’t really engaging directly with what they’re seeing. They’re seeing the camera’s view, not their own. In these selfie-obsessed times, we are urged to take to Twitter to prove we were there. It seems a pity to undermine one’s own live enjoyment by simply trying to make a souvenir.

Some theatres have taken to introducing tweet zones, so that theatregoers who are so minded can interact with a show while they are watching it. But surely those thoughts can wait? I know TV audiences are now familiar with multi-tasking and providing a running commentary on Twitter while they watch (though not everyone is so keen on the idea). I know that may heighten their awareness of it and provide a live conversation around it. But we don’t expect people in the theatre to talk to each other during a performance. And nor do we expect them to record their presence with a camera.

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