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Mark Shenton: I have a zero tolerance policy towards mobile phone usage in the theatre

How can we stop mobile phone usage in theatres? Photo: Shutterstock

Audiences are now so umbilically attached to their mobile phones that they seem to be actually affronted when asked not to use them. I sat next to Omid Djalili at the first night of Bend It Like Beckham [1] recently, and he was still texting during the opening few minutes of the show. I turned to him and told him to stop – he replied that he was dealing with an emergency, in which case I suggested he left the theatre to deal with it. He put his phone away and never looked at it again. Funny how the emergency disappeared.

Earlier this year Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was appearing in his own show, Hamilton, at the downtown Public Theatre at the time, called out a member of the audience who he’d observed texting throughout his show at the curtain call. It was Madonna, and he refused to meet her afterwards for the usual meet-and-greet backstage visit that celebrities routinely bestow on each other.

Last week Patti LuPone, who famously stopped the show to bawl out a member of the audience who was taking photographs during a performance of Gypsy – with repeated cries of “Who do you think you are?” to the offender (see video above) – was on the warpath again, physically removing the mobile phone of someone using one repeatedly to text during Shows for Days, the play she is currently appearing in at Lincoln Centre.  As someone who was there tweeted:

In a statement she issued the next day, she said:

We work hard on stage to create a world that is being totally destroyed by a few, rude, self-absorbed and inconsiderate audience members who are controlled by their phones. They cannot put them down. When a phone goes off or when a LED screen can be seen in the dark it ruins the experience for everyone else – the majority of the audience at that performance and the actors on stage. I am so defeated by this issue that I seriously question whether I want to work on stage anymore. Now I’m putting battle gear on over my costume to marshall the audience as well as perform.

I share her dismay, and find myself routinely policing fellow audience members when I go to the theatre. A couple of years ago I publicly berated none other than Bianca Jagger for taking flash photography throughout a performance of the opera Einstein on the Beach at the Barbican, but only at the end of the show as I wasn’t close enough to actually stop her during the show. She subsequently accused me of publicly assaulting her.

Having gone full Patti LuPone on her and cried out “Who do you think you are?” I will freely admit to insulting her. But I didn’t lay a finger on her.

My colleague Matt Wolf recently wrote in The Observer [4]:

I sat next to a woman at an early-April New York performance of On the Twentieth Century who kept her (brightly lit) mobile on during the entire show – albeit with the sound switched off – and checked it repeatedly. Much the same happened across the aisle from me at a second Broadway musical, It Shoulda Been You, except that the offender in that case left before it was over. One wonders why she bothered to show up at all?

But my own view is that instead of silently stewing with anger, confrontation is the best course of action. I therefore applaud LuPone’s stand in actually doing something about it. As she told the New York Times [5] afterwards:

She didn’t know what was going on. I should be a sleight of hand artist… I don’t know why they buy the ticket or come to the theatre if they can’t let go of the phone. It’s controlling them. They can’t turn it off and can’t stop looking at it. They are truly inconsiderate, self-absorbed people who have no public manners whatsoever. I don’t know what to do anymore. I was hired as an actor, not a policeman of the audience.

Of course, another alternative is that if you can’t beat them, join them, and in Penn and Teller’s new show, which has just opened on Broadway, their opening scene asks the entire audience to turn their phones on – and test that the ringing tone is working. They then invite a member of the audience onto the stage and ask that whoever they are seeing the show with phones them. In a brilliantly achieved routine, that phone is then placed in a box – and stamped on. Except that the box is empty. And then the friend is invited to ring the number again – and it rings underneath a seat in an entirely different part of the theatre. It is then retrieved, and is found to be within a securely taped box.

As Penn put it to the New York Times [6]:

After the trick is over, they often turn them off. That particular scold – ‘Don’t use your cellphone’ – is like telling children to be quiet with a substitute teacher. It’s not going to work. You can’t really do it with fake authority.

In another New York Times feature [6] the other day, a scheme was revealed that has been developed by a start-up tech company called Yondr:

[Yondr is] a form-fitting, tamper-proof neoprene case that patrons are handed as they enter a theatre. Phones are turned off or put on vibrate, slipped into the case and locked; the patron holds the package during the show. If the audience member needs to take a call, he or she can exit the theatre and have the device removed. After the show the case is returned to a hamper near the exits, like 3D glasses at a movie theatre.

That’s all good and well, but it requires everyone to comply with the scheme and not keep their phones buried at the bottom of their bags (where they’re even harder to retrieve when they inadvertently go off). And we’ve all done it: yes, even me (I once turned my phone on during the interval at Stratford-upon-Avon and forgot to turn it off again). Earlier this year I was at a first night at the National where Nick Hytner – now a visitor instead of the artistic director – was sitting in front of me. His mobile went off in the first act, resounding to a ring tone that played Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.