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Mark Shenton: Theatre should be a phone-free experience and technology can provide the answer

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These days it is virtually impossible to separate people from their phones. And despite strenuous efforts by theatres that make repeated announcements to ask audiences to turn them off – or at least to silence them during a show – it seems to fall on frequently deaf ears, until the device starts ringing or beeping consequently disrupting the show.

Some people even let them ring out in the hope that – in not fumbling for their phone to silence it – they won’t be noted as the offender.

And it has happened to many of us. I once turned my phone on during an interval at the Royal Shakespeare Company and forgot to turn it off again. It duly rang in the second act. My companion uttered “disgraceful” (we’re no longer friends, but not because of that deserved response). Another time, my phone was on silent – but somehow Siri thought I was talking to it and responded.

I was also once sitting behind Nick Hytner at the National Theatre, shortly after he had left the post of artistic director and his phone started playing: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.

So maybe, it’s time to take more radical steps. I recently attended Freestyle Love Supreme at New York’s Greenwich House Theatre and before I arrived I was warned by the press agent: “It is a phone-free experience. Upon arrival, you will secure all phones in Yondr pouches, which you will maintain possession of throughout the night.” At the end of the show, the Yondr pouch is unlocked by a remote device.

‘Theatre is always a dialogue between the stage and the audience – and part of that dialogue requires mutual respect’

This was the first time I’d seen this relatively low-tech solution employed, but when it was first devised in 2015, Yondr’s founder Graham Dugoni told the New York Times: “The idea is to allow people to be swept up into a shared mood in a live performance” without disruption.

In his review of Freestyle Love Supreme for the New York Times, Jesse Green also commented on the device. He said: “This is not an act of random persnicketiness. Nor is it meant as insurance against the possibility of a free-range Patti LuPone showing up to tongue-lash you for texting or taking pictures during the performance. The six-man cast of Freestyle is too laid-back for that; the vibe is more rec-room than star chamber. But they do mean to bind you to a contract: in return for listening very closely, they will be listening very closely to you.”

In this case, the show is entirely improvised, so the audience play a very active part in its creation. But theatre is always a dialogue between the stage and the audience – and part of that dialogue requires mutual respect: that you will be paying attention to what’s on stage and not on your phone.

Unless, of course, the show asks for it: James Graham’s 2014 show Privacy – which I saw at the Donmar and New York’s Public Theater – was built on an interaction between the audience, the actors and the technology we now live with.

Some of this etiquette should, of course, be obvious – at least to regular theatregoers. But not everyone is a regular theatregoer and newcomers shouldn’t be discouraged or shamed when they don’t know the right protocols. But using a locked pouch that holds your phone solves the problem: it treats everyone equally.

Of course, some might say they need to have their phones accessible for emergencies. I once sat next to a celebrity comedian at a first night who was checking his phone regularly as the show began. I told him to stop – he replied he had a family emergency. In that case, I replied, he should simply leave the theatre. He didn’t do so – and didn’t check his phone again. Sometimes it is just a reflexive thing – we are so used to having our devices in-hand.

But just as I used to love flying because for a few hours, at least, I’m inaccessible to the world (a luxury no longer available with WiFi on many planes), I loved having my phone locked away for the duration of the show. Any temptation to look at it was entirely removed.

Mark Shenton is associate editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Wednesday and Friday at thestage.co.uk/columns/shenton

Freestyle Love Supreme review at Greenwich House Theatre, New York – ‘a hit-and-miss improvised rap show’


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