David Byrne made an announcement to the audience before his Broadway show, American Utopia. He told them that he believed they would have a much better time watching the show if they did not film or watch the action through their phone, encouraging them to share the experience by talking to others about it afterwards.
It got me thinking back to last year when I visited First Avenue in Minneapolis. The music venue’s association with Prince is legendary and most locals claim they saw him perform there.
Aside from a few photos taken by the venue, these performances happened largely before social media existed or the widespread use of cameraphones, which meant the experience of seeing Prince live was a thrilling, visceral memory for those who were there.
Their retelling of this makes the experience personal and contagious in a way that no narrative on social media or wobbly smartphone video can ever do justice. For Prince, and other recording artists like him, secret gigs were a crucial contributor to their discovery, success and mystique. Today’s immediate social media access, on the other hand, makes such magical, memorable and unexpected experiences harder to achieve.
In 1986, The Phantom of the Opera premiered at London’s Her Majesty’s Theatre. The musical received a level of mania difficult to imagine today and saw people camp outside the theatre, hoping for a return ticket.
It also opened long before social media and general mobile phone use, meaning the experience of watching a live show could only be described in conversation, print or on television. As another production of the musical would not open for a year it meant that nightly, a West End audience of only 1,216 people discovered Phantom.
Inevitably, word-of-mouth heavily contributed to the intense interest from people wanting to know about London’s hit show and prompted many to rush off and book tickets. This kept the show in the public consciousness, causing it to retain an ongoing media interest.
One of the most successful parts of the musical’s original PR campaign was what it kept back – it deliberately published no front-on pictures of what the Phantom’s face looked like behind his mask. This mystery meant audiences had to see the show to find out.
George Perry’s 1987 book The Complete Phantom of the Opera was the first to include a photo of the hidden side of the Phantom’s face and provide readers the chance to marvel at Christopher Tucker’s remarkable make-up design. Even today, very few pictures of the Phantom without his mask have ever been published.
A big issue in theatre is that there’s no longer the same respect given to previews in which a production continues its development. Today, a much-anticipated show in preview can be widely written about from the first preview, with no shortage of potential spoilers at risk of being reported.
When once phones may have rung late into the night as excited theatregoers got home and called each other wanting to share their experiences of an early preview, today, any surprise may be usurped by a stranger posting poor quality film or sneakily taken photos that go viral, and which can easily kill the excitement for others.
David Byrne is right to make the announcement he does before his show – it is something that’s frequently missing in the arts today. Audiences like to be surprised by the unexpected, and empowered to feel that they are making these discoveries for themselves. You also enjoy the experience of watching a show so much more if neither you, nor the person sitting in front of you, is filming on a smartphone during the show.
Audiences like to be surprised by the unexpected, and empowered to feel that they are making these discoveries for themselves
As a result audience members share both their discovery and experience with others and take pride in feeling an ownership of them. Getting audiences to talk to each other, as much as they are posting, is just as important in achieving this.
Today, there can sometimes be less courage to fail or experiment in theatre when something is quickly judged and shared. This can risk work becoming pedestrian – though any success can also be immediate and far-reaching.
The challenge today is also about maintaining interest and excitement for a production along with any subsequent legacy. This is achieved through passing memories of the personal experience from individual to individual.
Social media successfully deals with the here and now, but the importance of keeping great moments in theatre as memories that stay in focus and remain alive long after the performance ends relies upon encouraging a compelling need to hear them described to others out loud, both now and in the future.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan