To Be or Not To Be: That is the Mobile Phone Question

Benedict Cumberbatch made headlines across the world this week as the latest stage star to hit out at audience members using mobile phones after his performance in Hamlet. But this latest story raises a more pressing question about the cause of this technologically-centred behaviour which is much closer to home for every show.

After his performance as the titular character in Hamlet on London’s West End, Benedict Cumberbatch pleaded with fans at the stage door not to film his performance. Describing it as ‘mortifying’ and that there is ‘nothing less supportive or enjoyable’ than being on stage and seeing a big red light from an audience member’s phone recording a segment of the show.

So where is the issue? This is a pretty black and white point of view from Benedict Cumberbatch. When you go to the theatre, he wants you to put your phone away. No videoing, no photography, no texting, no social media . . . Wait a second.

The star also took this opportunity at the stage door (which was videoed and is making its way around social media as we speak) to ask the crowd to put technology to good use. ‘Can I ask you all a huge favour,’ he said. ‘It’s been a hell of a week, one thing after another. What I really want to do is try and enlist you. I don’t really use social media, but I’d really appreciate it if you did tweet, blog, hashtag the s*** out of this one for me’.

So he wants the audience to record and photograph this part of his performance and go nuts on social media. Just not the previous part of their theatre experience.

It is time for the theatre to make a decision. It either needs to embrace mobile phones and work out ways to incorporate them into the experience or completely ban them and separate these devices from the performance.

At the moment, theatre audiences are receiving incredibly mixed messaging. You can take photos in the foyer. You can’t take photos inside the theatre. Unless of course that is in a theatre where a generic curtain is being used and there isn’t any intellectual copyright – in this circumstance you can take photos in the theatre. Some theatres let you take selfies in the seats but not photos of the stage. There will be messaging on the way into the theatre about posting your experience on all forms of the productions social media. But if you dare to pull out your phone in some theatres you will then get told off by the ushers.

So many conflicting messages! It is way too confusing and the rules vary from theatre to theatre. Especially now that many shows are calling on their audiences to do their promotion for them via their social media channels. It is no wonder that people pull out their phones to capture the experience – they are told to by the production!

There isn’t much of an excuse for die-hard theatre fans because they often understand the reasoning behind each of these rules. But what about your average theatre-goer who sees one show a year (maybe two if they are lucky). Many other live entertainment experiences they attend will encourage them to video or take photos and some of their previous theatre experiences will have let them take photographs in the theatre – in fact they may have even been told to do so from signage on the way in spruiking the production’s social media pages.

If you want to change audience behaviour, you need consistency. Whether this means completely banning phones or not? A decision needs to be made. Personally, it is time to let down the walls and start actively promoting the use of phones in conducive ways to enhance the audience’s experience. Many other entertainment offers do this and if theatre doesn’t, it will only get left behind.