Why theatres need to take a zero tolerance approach to mobile phones

The artistic director of Jermyn Street Theatre on why an incident last week has led him to take drastic action

Jermyn Street Theatre's artistic director Anthony Biggs has called for mobile phones to be banned in theatres following an incident last week whereby a production at the venue was stopped when the cast suspected somebody was filming them.

Athol Fugard's Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act calls for the two main performers to be naked throughout. About 20 minutes into the performance last Thursday evening, the actors (Jemima Hyde and David Judge) became aware that somebody sitting in the front row of the audience was using their phone.

Initially they just thought 'how rude', and ignored it, but as it went on they suspected he was trying to film them. So after a few minutes David stepped out of character and asked the man to turn the phone off, which he duly did. At the end of the performance the stage manager and general manager stopped him and, although they couldn't find anything in terms of a video, they told him not to come back to the theatre.

"Nobody would dream of making a call on an aeroplane"

This opens up a much wider discussion about people using their phones in theatres, and I'm far from the first person to raise the issue. People have got so used to using their phones now that they think it's acceptable to use them right up until a show starts, the moment the interval begins, and unfortunately sometimes during the performance itself. I feel at the moment we're rather putting our heads in the sand about this, but the use of technology is only going to become more prevalent. I'm not being a luddite and saying people shouldn't use their phones, but theatres need to start taking stronger action.

What this action could be is the big question. The perpetrator on Thursday was given two warning messages before the show started about turning his phone off, but still used it. I'd love to be able to put a phone blocking system in the theatre but I think there may be human rights issues around that, plus it wouldn't stop people recording. So I feel the only way of changing things is to create a culture whereby people feel it's unacceptable to do it. Nobody would dream of making a call on an aeroplane, for example.

The cast of Statements
The cast of Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act stopped their performance

When someone uses their phone in a theatre they're not only disturbing the actors but their fellow audience members. Their job as an audience member in a theatre is to participate. They may not be speaking, but they're involved in a conversation with the actors. It therefore beggars belief that somebody would use a phone and break that conversation, when they've paid good money to be part of a live experience. And I believe that most people relish the opportunity to not be on their phones for a few hours.

When Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon appeared in All That Fall at Jermyn Street Theatre, there was an incident one night when Eileen stopped the show because she heard some incongruous music coming from somewhere. She eventually sourced it to a bag that was next the stage. It was coming from a mobile phone, and of course the perpetrator blamed his wife and denied all knowledge.

People always make excuses. The classic scenario – and this is the excuse used by the man last Thursday – is that their child is ill. But to this I say: 'If your child is ill, why did you come to the show in the first place?'

We must be bolder in making people turn their phones off beforehand. When we took All That Fall to the States, the theatre manager himself would make an announcement on stage each night, which we may replicate. I know some theatres have 'tweet zones', where people are allowed to use their phones, but I don't like that idea and it certainly wouldn't work in our venue. The only solution is a zero tolerance policy – if people are caught using their phones during a performance, they won't be welcome at the venue again. It has to be like that, it has to be draconian, because otherwise people will ignore it.

For more information about Jermyn Street Theatre, click here. Anthony Biggs was speaking to Theo Bosanquet.

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