Munch Munch, Scroll Scroll: Theatre ‘Etiquette’… Again

Up until very recently, all those working in the theatre industry, without exception, had my utmost respect and my envy directed at them like a dart towards a bullseye (in a non-threatening way of course…)

Then I read some comments by a prominent person in theatre journalism (see footnote for update on this)…and I instantly gained several fresh wrinkles on my already alarmingly ageing brow as a result of my sheer incredulity.

This person actually suggested that:
Audiences who are distracted by phones in the theatre are the ones with a problem…
That they should reprimand themselves for their lack of focus and their poor attention spans as the people around them scroll through various images (on their lit up device…in a darkened room…what kind of human eye could be compelled to stray at such a thing?)

Ummmm… what the…?!

This is a long one, folks – fetch a brew and take a seat.

Phones in the theatre are a big problem. Phones are often problems in social situations these days, with folks scrolling rather than chatting, even when they’ve opted to be about with their so-called friends – but phones in the theatre, in particular, are never okay during a performance. To suggest that the people showing respect to the actors and those around them by not using their phones are just moody, self-entitled snobs who should seek medical or psychological attention for their irritation or inability to concentrate (on something which they’ve likely spent a substantial amount of their hard-earned wages on) is absolutely, totally and utterly outrageous. For that opinion to come from someone privileged enough to be rooted in theatre journalism is both shocking and incomprehensible to me.

I’ll accept various opinions on this food in the theatre debate, sparked by a recent article in The Telegraph regarding audiences being asked not to eat during performances of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ – a request which was explained clearly via a statement citing respect for both actors and audience members in a play containing many tense pauses. I find that a very reasonable justification – who wants a Trigger Happy TV moment in one of those pauses? But the self-appointed pioneers who champion getting everyone into the theatre without ever mentioning how to be considerate to others apparently do not like this ‘ban’ at all; noisy food is a right, darn it! If we don’t let people munch away, they’ll feel rejected and alienated and they’ll never return, and, and, and! Because going to the theatre is primarily about the snacks, right? I struggle to believe that argument, and I struggle to believe that they’d happily shrug off the experience of someone shattering that tension with something thoughtless, like the poorly timed choice to open a fizzy drink, causing overspill, and then promptly dissolving into extended, seat-shaking, awkward laughter. I’ve experienced that – it’s irritating, no question – wait five minutes please, just five considerate minutes!

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I’ll listen to views about medical exceptions and the like because that’s a different kettle of fish entirely. I’ll also entertain the sensitivity surrounding the loaded words ‘etiquette’ and ‘behaviour’ although regardless of the words you choose to use, I’m firmly on the side of the fence that believes while no one should ever feel excluded, there needs to be a middle ground where expectations about common courtesy for others are made clear to ALL. I LOVE the theatre and I spend pretty much all of my spare cash on seeing as much of it as I can, and I’m just as passionate as anyone about securing the future of theatre and widening the pull for new audiences. However. I wholly reject the notion that we should shut up and put up when people are being extremely inconsiderate after we’ve spent money and we deserve to enjoy the performance we’ve paid for without unnecessary distractions.

Let’s not forget a vital thought here, too – for the actors, who also deserve the respect of the attention of the audience. They might not see the moving jaws, but they can hear that constant attempt to whisper an irritating commentary from the second row, or see those two phones as a pair of besties compare their selfies from earlier (or as I’ve actually witnessed, actually attempting to take a selfie…in the dark…mid-show…for Pete’s sake! No, no, that phone held aloft was in no way distracting or irksome for the people in the rows behind them). It’s not about snobbery, it’s about basic manners, and if people want to argue about the appropriateness of insisting on basic manners, then we do indeed have some problems to discuss.

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I’ll also add a side note about the comments I’ve seen about being aware of bigger problems in the world – a few crinkling wrappers are nothing compared to the real issues out there. Yes. I’m pretty sure most of us are aware of current events. But most of us also see theatre as escapism – I can humbly feel for those suffering and in need across the world when I am out of the theatre; are we not to escape for a little while and enjoy a laugh, a jazzy musical number or a gripping fictional tragedy without the BBC’s crawler simultaneously snaking across the back of our brains? That rustling means nothing in lots of places – but in a quiet, attentive, darkened theatre where folks are looking to escape, to be enveloped by the production and to enjoy what is on stage, that rustling becomes an issue regardless of what’s going on in the real world. Obviously.

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There will of course always be exceptions, but I’m not commenting on medical exceptions here, I’m commenting purely on the individuals who need a considerable increase in their awareness of where they are and whose expensive evening they might be ruining by thoughtlessly scrolling through various inane videos on Facebook in the middle of a ballad, failing to whisper about what Sandra on the other side said about Drew’s attempt at a Bakewell Tart earlier, or conveniently waiting for/ oblivious to the fact that there’s a tense pregnant pause going on when they root around to find and then crack open that grab bag of crunchy Doritos. And to those mentioning the good old days of rowdy audiences – there’s as much merit in harking back to that as there is in suggesting that along with the acceptance of unceasing hubbub, we should allow audiences to cart in their wilting vegetables ready for aiming and firing at the actors – why not eh? Those who object are pathetic – why would such a thing be frowned upon in modern day? What law suits? What outrage from unions about the appalling assaults on cast members? They did it in the olden days for goodness’ sake! Times change, folks, and progress is often made. Hurrah – no?

So. There are many arguments to make here, and I’ll engage with most of them. The food debate is not really a huge issue – I’m not totally against all food, just inconsiderate choices regarding food. But this non-sensical phone comment in an apparent defence of something that may well eventually drive out passionate, regular theatre lovers in an attempt to engage new ones at any cost, is ridiculous to me. To suggest that it should not just be tolerated but accepted on the grounds that we are elitist, alienating, self-obsessed people who should get a grip, has in particular has spiked my blood pressure and prompted this here article.

I mean… it bears repeating: what the actual…?!

Update: After the Twitter equivalent of a natter, it appears that the commenter is actually against phones in the theatre; the comments were a contemplation on why it is people find such things distracting in the first place, with the lack of clear rejection of phones leading me to misunderstand their stance. I’ll leave this article as is though, because I stand by the content of the rant itself, even if the catalyst proves to be a misunderstanding! Said commenter and I do apparently continue to respectfully agree to disagree about various views expressed here though…good old Twitter, bringing theatre folk together to hash out the big issues, eh?!

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