On December 29, Bianca Del Rio, who is starring in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, reached the end of her tether and took to Twitter: “Dear blonde bitch with glasses, thanks for distracting the entire cast and several people around you as you filmed during all of Act I with your phone in your hand. This is not a concert, theme park or even a cruise ship… it’s the theatre. Respect it!”
My first instinct was to cheer, misogynistic language aside. It’s unfashionable to complain about audience behaviour, but this is basic: it’s dangerous to distract cast members during a technically complex show.
Illicitly filming an entire act also raises legal issues about intellectual property. But should actors be using Twitter to shame audience members?
I’m a theatre puritan. I glower at people who whisper to each other, and I wince each time someone crinkles their sweet wrapper. Plea: if you are going to do this, do it fast. Nothing is worse than someone who thinks that if they unwrap their sweet slowly, scrunch by Sisyphean scrunch, it will make less sound.
But even I acknowledge that such rules have been used to exclude. Too often, demanding that people follow certain rules in expensive environments is a way to shame those who didn’t learn them in a gilded childhood.
In academic Kirsty Sedgman’s thoughtful book The Reasonable Audience, she expertly traces the ways theatre etiquette has evolved to establish the boundaries of the West End theatre as an elite space. The West End is still the home of ‘formal’ theatre: the type of immersive work that welcomes unruly engagement mainly happens elsewhere.
Sedgman writes of “a gradual relinquishing of power from theatre audience to theatre producer”. She’s right. But we’re seeing another shift of power towards theatre celebrities. Actors are taking to Twitter to clap back at critics, lecture audiences, or even expose backstage rows. Power is complicated, but in any room, a fat chunk of it now belongs to the person with the biggest social media following.
Spectatorship also instils power. The person who filmed Del Rio abused the power of her gaze. But Del Rio has 626,400 Twitter followers. There’s huge power in bringing that following down on anybody’s head. Though she didn’t name the audience member, Del Rio identified her enough that she could have been doxed.
I’m still fundamentally on Del Rio’s side. The offender was an entitled prat – as are most people who act selfishly in theatres. And there’s nothing ‘inclusive’ about encouraging entitlement, though Sedgman would disagree with me here. In my experience, the loudest audience members are not new audiences but affluent, white, over-50s: the entitled classes.
But I worry about the next time a social media star shames an audience member and identifies her – and it is, disproportionately, women who are policed. Theatres need to find gentle, non-exclusionary ways to advertise what is okay and what isn’t. Shame never helped anybody.
Kate Maltby is a columnist and critic. She currently writes regularly for the Financial Times and the Guardian, as well as a range of US publications. She sits on the board of Index on Censorship and this year’s judging panel for the David Cohen Prize for Literature. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/kate-maltby