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Challenging A Theatre Tradition: Phones Off

By Anna Robb

OK so I’m going to put it out there and perhaps I’m going to get my hand slapped for challenging this theatre tradition. Even some of my fellow TheatreArtLife contributors are going to gasp and shake their heads at me. (I’m looking at you Mena Buscetto). Perhaps I’ve lived in Asia too long and I’m tired of fighting the good fight but I’m going to say it……. why can’t audience members take photos during a theatre show??

In 2017, Ashley Sutherland-Winch (my co founder of TAL) and I interviewed Franz Harary backstage between two performances of his The House of Magic show. As we sat in his dressing room, a stone’s throw from the stage, he told us that he encouraged photos and videos in his show.

“Free promotion!” he said. “Why is the theatre world in denial of what’s going on in the real world?”

And this got me thinking.

When we opened The House of Dancing Water in Macau in 2010 we prepared the traditional pre show announcement in no less than THREE languages (Cantonese, Mandarin and English). Three times people were asked not to take photos and guess what the first thing the primarily Chinese audience would do as soon as the first bar of music was played….. they took out their cell phones and pointed them at the stage.

And it wasn’t one or two, it was a sea of cellphones (you know when they give audiences some gimmicky light up toy to wave in Olympic opening ceremonies for that great arena camera shot…. yeah imagine that and you’re close to what I used to see from the show call booth).

It was futile to think we could stop this. The ushers at first tried to encourage audience members to turn their phones off but it was disruptive and unproductive them running up and down the aisles with their no phone mandate. This was rapidly adapted to a no flash rule. Flash was a risk to the acrobats being distracted during their acrobatic tricks, so this was deemed the priority and a much more achievable rule to enforce.

Traditional theatre protocol is not really a thing in Asia and my most favourite crazy audience behaviour in my time in Macau was I once saw an audience member with a laptop, Skyping a friend in on the action so he could watch the show. The laptop was facing the stage and from where I stood, I could see the full screen shot of the face of his nonpaying friend enjoying the show virtually.

Now, I understand the purists out there. Mena Buscetta’s article Theatre Etiquette 101: Phones, Snacks and Other Errors came in number 18 in our Top 20 Articles of our first year of TheatreArtLife. The article was shared well across theatre circles agreeing with Mena’s points of how to behave.

I’m certainly not suggesting that people should be allowed to video scenes or take photos in a West End or Broadway show. I, as much as anyone, expect everybody to conform to the traditions of theatre going in these places.

Seeing shows in the West End or Broadway is not like seeing shows elsewhere. It’s like putting on your good dress or nice pants when you go to church.

There’s a ceremony attached to this tradition and to participate you should conform to the rules, respect the tradition and play along.

But there’s a wide gamut of theatrical performances beyond the theatre royalty of Broadway and West End and why can’t the rules be relaxed elsewhere?  Why can’t smaller companies with minimal marketing budgets open their rules to allow the audience to do their publicity for them? We are now so far into the world of digital media, it would be silly to think that a polished presentation of a poster and an email press release is going to get you anywhere.

To add to this, people watch bad resolution, badly shot viral videos online all the time now… we accept shitty quality if it means we get to see something we want to see. Think about how you could leverage this to a theatre company’s advantage. Let the audiences take their pics and videos, encourage them to share, you may even earn yourself some more ticket sales whilst you have the fleeting attention of the social media stream.

Some companies are embracing the fact that people can’t live without their phones and are even considering augmented reality during live shows which means it would be a requirement to whip out your phone to complete or see the show in its entirety. Coachella goers this year witnessed this as they were able to download the Coachella VR app and experience a whole new layer of the festival, plus a virtual Easter egg hunt.

Whatever your opinion of the phones off rule, the reality is, live entertainment is evolving. You can take photos and videos at a sports game, a concert, an opening ceremony, an event, at a parade, at buskers on the street, why should theatre be left in the dark? Perhaps if more people glued to their computer screens saw what happens when the curtain gets raised and got a snapshot of the magic of theatre, they might head out to put their bum on a seat somewhere and keep this industry thriving.

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