The Theatre Charter – Dictatorial Or Necessary?

A couple of weeks ago a new call to arms was issued. A new theatre charter was launched calling for people to sign up to a code of conduct for theatre audiences.  A website is up and running where signatures can be added. The aim, to ensure that audiences at theatre shows behave themselves in an appropriate manner, that mobile phones are off and out of sight, that sweet wrappers and bags aren’t rustled annoyingly during a show.  That people turn up on time having ensured that they have been to the toilet in advance and that they won’t leave during a performance unless for a medical emergency.  Generally the campaign is insisting that everybody sit still, be quiet and watch.

Now, some of the sentiment expressed by the campaign I can fully understand and to some extent agree with.  I would certainly be annoyed by an audience member who answered a telephone during a performance and then actually had a conversation.  But I can honestly say it has never happened in a performance I’ve been at. I also consider myself lucky.  My phone has never rung during a performance.  I am so paranoid of it doing so that I sit at most shows with my phone in my lap, knowing that it is switched off, but ready to leap into action should it accidentally turn itself on and ring of its own accord.  I accept though, that a mobile phone ringing in the modern world is an occasional hazard. When it does, it is not the result of a vindictive person, purposefully intent on ruining everyone’s experience, but in 99.9% of cases a simple act of forgetfulness with the person mortified as they struggle to get the phone turned off.

I am uncomfortable with some of the language used by the campaign.  On the @TheatreCharter twitter feed one of the early posts asked for stories of how people had successfully dealt with ‘offenders’ for example using the hashtag #bravo.  There is an underlying feeling that the campaign believes that audiences need to be ‘educated’ in how to behave during a performance.  The suggestion, however implied, that unless you know that there is a certain way to ‘behave’ and unless you behave that way then you are not welcome is unnerving and in reality not helpful to engaging with audiences whether new or existing.

I would suggest that theatre needs to educate itself to embrace a modern world, one in which technology is integral to many people’s lives.  It has happened at gigs as nowadays the lights of 1000’s of mobile phones have replaced the traditional waving of lighters in the air.  Arts Centres across the country present their work in really imaginative ways, encouraging and embracing modern technology alongside experiences of the traditional theatre goer. 

Here at Lincoln Drill Hall, as one of many examples last year we presented two nights of ‘Mess’ by Caroline Horton.  The audience for the second performance doubled due to the live and immediate tweeting and facebook posting of the first night audience, drawing in their peers to watch the piece.  

More recently, should we have made an announcement before the start of performances of Les Miserables asking audience members, there specifically to watch their friends in a production, not to cheer and whoop loudly after each song?  I’m sure some audience members would find that frustrating and having the potential to ruin the moment.  I wouldn’t make that announcement because the audience is responding, interacting, being alive to what is unfurling around them. it is not expected ‘etiquette’, but I welcome their response.

I consider myself to be an experienced theatre attender.  Last Saturday I was live tweeting during an open air performance of George’s Marvellous Medicine at Lincoln Castle.  Not because I was bored, not because I wanted to annoy the person sitting next to me.  I did it because I was impressed with the creativity before me, because the organisation I run had played a small part in getting the show and the audience there and I was proud of that and used available technology to discreetly share that.  Did it ruin the show for other audience members.  Well nobody said anything.  Were the actors put off by my occasional tweets anymore than they were by the rush by 200 parents to get raincoats on their children when it started raining midway through act two? No.

I completely understand that some theatre requires quiet to create and deliver a specific moment, atmosphere or mood.  I get that.  But please don’t let’s pick on the occasional mobile phone going off.  There are many things that have the potential to ruin that moment and certainly not solely by the allegedly uneducated newbies who simply don’t know how to behave.  A few years ago I was watching a matinee of a touring production of Hedda Gabler in Nottingham.  Throughout the performance not one mobile phone went off.  Well done to the capacity audience for understanding the need to turn their phones off.  Right at the end of the piece, Rosamund Pike, playing Hedda, wandered off stage left into ‘the garden’.  A pause.  A gunshot.  Another pause.  And then the gentleman sitting behind me, who from the conversations I’d overheard throughout the pre-show and interval was a regular theatre attender leaned across to his companion and loudly exclaimed ‘I told you she’d shoot herself.’  Was the moment ruined?  Not for me.  Was the performance ruined?  Absolutely not for me.

Theatre is live and so are its audiences.  We are human beings not robots.  If it is more important for an audience member to take a call than watch the show and they don’t get the fact that maybe they should do so outside the auditorium then this campaign is not going to help that person.  If the venue staff won’t remove someone interrupting a performance for whatever reason to an extent that the show needs to be halted, then complain to that venue. (By the way, an occasional phone going off or sweet wrapper rustling isn’t just cause in my opinion). But what isn’t needed and will put off not just new theatre audiences but many experienced ones is a campaign to dictate to us that there is only one way to behave when engaging with performance as an audience member.

There are other blogs on this topic by my colleagues Annabel Turpin and Amber Massie-Blomfield