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Mark Shenton: Disruptive audiences are ruining the theatre experience for all of us

John Dagleish in Sunny Afternoon at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton John Dagleish in Sunny Afternoon at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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In an interview in The Sunday Times, playwright Mike Bartlett spoke feelingly of how theatre is “a very unusual art form where all sorts of different people – you hope – gather in one room, turn off their mobile phones and concentrate on one thing and do it together. It’s a collective activity, and that’s very unusual now.”

Yes, that is the source of its pleasure and rarity – that this can only be happening now, in front of this audience (even if some of that audience might now be watching it remotely in a cinema on some nights, they’re still being brought into the room in real time). But it is also the source of some of its tensions, too, and as regards turning off mobile phones, I can only say: if only. I’ve written often of the blatant disregard of normal etiquette when it comes to use of mobile phones in the theatre, whether for texting, tweeting, photography or even taking calls.

Two online campaigns seek to redress this: the Cumberphone Campaign, which aims to find and implement “creative and credible solutions” to the problem, and Theatre Charter, which is trying to set rules and undertakings for audience members to be aware of and be obliged to follow.

This has been long fomenting. Though it seems obvious enough to me, I’ve had to fight some pretty strange battles myself, both public and private. Most (in)famously, of course, I publicly berated Bianca Jagger when she took flash photography throughout a performance of Einstein on the Beach at the Barbican in 2012. As The Guardian reported, Jagger replied by accusing me of assaulting her after the show, a claim subsequently repeated in a letter to The Times by someone who was with her. I replied that I had not laid a finger on her – and if I had, she should have had me charged with assault – though I freely admitted to insulting her.

But after the same performance, I had a Twitter spat with Igor Toronyi-Lalic, now arts editor of The Spectator’s Culture House, who argued that the objectors to Jagger, some of whom were sitting closer to her than me and had apparently challenged her verbally, had disrupted his quiet, contemplative enjoyment more than a few photo flashes did. I then asked him if tweeting during the show was acceptable – and he replied that it was, “within reason”. (When I checked his Twitter feed later, I discovered he had to say that, as that is precisely what he’d done during the show himself.)

But there’s now a widespread sense of entitlement that people bring to coming to the theatre – that somehow, their needs and desires to do whatever they like come first. Earlier this year at the Union Theatre, I confronted another amateur photographer during a fringe musical, who replied that the person she was photographing was her kid brother, and that if I’d wiped his arse as often as she had, I’d be entitled to take pictures, too.

An audience member at Sunny Afternoon last week told the London Evening Standard how he was “left fuming” when an usher asked him to stop humming along to the show. He genuinely couldn’t believe why he was creating a disturbance: “I just find it so bizarre to explain why I was singing at a musical. You pay a lot of money… All I remember is my foot tapping along to the music and humming along. Suddenly I was told, ‘Can you quieten down?’ If it was a drama then yes but if it’s a musical you expect to be allowed to sing along to some of the songs that you remember from your youth.”

Somehow he doesn’t compute that other audience members have come to hear professional actors sing the songs – not his own amateur efforts.

Last week, a matinee performance of the current Broadway production of the play Sylvia, starring Matthew Broderick and Annaleigh Ashford, had to be stopped when an audience member’s phone rang – and she took the call. When the audience started shouting for her to stop, she simply stepped out of the box she was sitting in and carried on talking, even more audibly.

In an interview, Ashford – who plays the title role of a pet dog – about the incident, told Playbill:

We’re very lucky to be in a play that is set up so that if a cell phone rings, I can bark at it. It’s much easier to recognise and acknowledge it and handle it lightly than in other plays. So I did my bark: I said, ‘Hey hey hey! Hey hey hey!’ She didn’t stop, So I ad-libbed: ‘I think somebody is having a conversation in the other room’, and that got a great laugh. It was a loving, warm way to acknowledge to the audience that we knew what was happening. Theatre is a communal experience, and it was become overwhelmingly clear that this was becoming a problem for all of us.

They had to stop the show: “It became very clear that the audience was so distracted that they weren’t in the world of the play any more,” Ashford said. That gets to the nub of the matter and why this needs to be tackled head-on: an audience that is tweeting, texting, photographing or taking calls isn’t in the world of the play – and takes fellow audience members out of it, too.

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