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Why mobile phones should be banned from our theatres

PUBLISHED: 09:20 25 November 2017

Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope in An American in Paris which is currently enjoying a critically acclaimed run at London's Dominion Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope in An American in Paris which is currently enjoying a critically acclaimed run at London's Dominion Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

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Digital technology has completely transformed our lives. The arts have really embraced the creative possibilities but sometimes technology can ruin an evening out. Arts editor Andrew Clarke relives the highs and lows of a recent trip to a London show

Loud woman on phone annoys people in theatreLoud woman on phone annoys people in theatre

Technology is a tool. The creative arts have embraced technology just like any other industry and it has transformed music, theatre, dance and the visual arts in ways which previous generations could not have dreamed of.

But, technology, particularly digital technology, if not used correctly can be an horrendous intrusion into an otherwise wonderful night out with your loved ones.

The other weekend I witnessed an event, which looking back was comical, but at the time had me raging inside. Most of the time, I like to think that I am a fairly relaxed, easy-going individual. I now realise that I am deluding myself. It turns out that I am a phone Nazi.

An American in Paris is currently enjoying a critically acclaimed run at London's Dominion Theatre. Photo: Johan PerssonAn American in Paris is currently enjoying a critically acclaimed run at London's Dominion Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

If I had my way, all phones should be confiscated upon entering a theatre, secured in a sound-proof vault and returned to owners upon departure.

The incident which prompted such draconian thoughts happened last weekend at a performance of American in Paris at the Dominion Theatre in London. My wife and I had gone to experience Christopher Wheeldon’s 21st century re-imagining of the Gene Kelly classic as a contemporary ballet.

As expected the theatre was packed and just before curtain up a party of six arrived and deposited themselves in the row in front. Then came the usual pre-show announcement: “may we remind patrons that the taking of photographs and sound recordings is strictly prohibited and please ensure all mobile phones are switched off.”

Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope in An American in Paris which is currently enjoying a critically acclaimed run at London's Dominion Theatre. Photo: Johan PerssonRobert Fairchild and Leanne Cope in An American in Paris which is currently enjoying a critically acclaimed run at London's Dominion Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

At the conclusion of this message, the older woman in the party of late arrivals animatedly gathered together all their phones, stuffed them in her bag, and we all settled down to enjoy a show which proved to be a brilliant showcase for new technology with dazzling digital projections providing the art-inspired backdrops.

All was well for an hour, then suddenly we were aware of the distant sound of a ringing phone. As the phone remained unanswered, the ringing grew more strident and intrusive. It was then that the woman in front of us realised that the ringing phone was located underneath her seat.

This then prompted the unzipping of the bag and a mad scramble to locate the insistent ringing beast, retrieving and discarding virtually every one of the half dozen phones she had collected earlier in an attempt to silence the offending mobile.

Leanne Cope in An American in Paris which is currently enjoying a critically acclaimed run at London's Dominion Theatre. Photo: Johan PerssonLeanne Cope in An American in Paris which is currently enjoying a critically acclaimed run at London's Dominion Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

By this time my concentration on the stage had been totally shattered. I was furious and willing her to find and switch off this device which brought the outside world into what should have been a secure, creative bubble inside the theatre.

Happily, the incident was not repeated during the second act and at the end of the day it didn’t destroy the overall enjoyment of the evening but for two minutes it was an unwelcome intrusion and destroyed the atmosphere during an important scene which led to the interval.

In one evening we had the two sides of modern digital technology – the imaginative settings which conjured up cityscapes and Parisian backdrops as laid out in an artist’s sketchpad and the unnecessary disruption of a performance by a thoughtless audience member.

It’s not the technology that is at fault but we all need to embrace a new digital etiquette which accepts that for a while, when we are at the theatre, cinema or concert hall then we are out of touch with the outside world – and it’s okay to be out of touch. We need to acknowledge that we have voluntarily gone to a safe, creative space which exists out of time and space for the length of the performance.

When the applause stops, as the performers walk off stage then we can switch our phones back on and re-connect with the world and hopefully share our experiences once we have had time to assimilate them.

Theatre, is not entirely blameless in this technological muddle. For a time it was sending out mixed messages. Bloggers and digital reviewers were invited along to press nights, particularly in London theatres, and people were encouraged to tweet during a performance. This was only during press nights it has to be said but many theatregoers, myself included, regarded this as the thin end of the wedge. How long would it be before people were tweeting during a regular performance?

The idea that you can form any sort of considered opinion mid-way through an evening is ludicrous. Happily, the tweeting menace appears to have gone away but we all seem to be neurotically glued to our mobiles and we need to recognise that we won’t have an anxiety attack if we switch off our phones for just a couple of hours.

Digital technology is brilliant. It can enhance and re-shape our cultural life. In skilled hands it can delivered new sounds and images, lighting effects and holographic images which will encourage us to use our imaginations and travel to new places which is why we don’t need ringing phones bringing us crashing back to earth.

So the next time you are in a theatre or cinema – switch off your phone.

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