Richard Griffiths and Patti LuPone: theatre is no stranger to actors taking poor audience behaviour into their own hands.
Griffiths famously stopped a performance of The History Boys on Broadway when three phones went off. “You should be ashamed of yourselves,” he told the audience. “I am not going to compete with these electronic devices. You were told to turn them off by the stage manager, you were told it was against the law.” He then threatened to cancel the performance if another went off.
LuPone, meanwhile, took matters further and snatched a phone from an audience member’s hand because they were texting.
But should it be up to actors to police the actions of unruly audiences? And is it even the audience’s fault? Often, of course, audiences will have turned their phones off before a show starts. At many productions, pre-show announcements remind them to do so.
But at other shows, it’s not so clear what the rules are. At Be More Chill, currently running at the Other Palace in London, signs are held aloft towards the end by ushers telling audiences to feel free to capture the show’s final moments.
Not so long ago, some theatres also experimented with ‘tweet seats’ – dedicating certain sections of the auditorium to those who wanted to tweet during the show.
And now some venues are actively encouraging audiences to use their phones to pre-order interval drinks, to be delivered during the interval, as Selladoor announced this week.
At the other end of the scale, at shows such as Madonna’s recent gigs at the London Palladium, audiences are expected to surrender their phones completely and are only given access again at the end of the night.
So the rules range from the extreme of an absolute no-phone zone to productions that actively encourage you to use your device. All this means there is little clarity about how audiences are expected to behave in the theatre. And this inconsistency fuels uncertainty among theatregoers, especially those who may not go as often as others.
Maybe it’s unreasonable to expect audiences – who are so used to checking their phones whenever they want – to know what theatre expects from them when the rules are so varied.
Matthew Hemley is news editor of The Stage. Alistair Smith is away