Thursday, 13 August 2015

Writer Steven O'Key listened to our artistic director Ben on the radio earlier this week and shares his thoughts on the use of mobile devices in theatre performances.

Steven O'KeyRecently there has been a lot of discussion from artists and audiences around the subject of people using their mobile phones during performances. 1623’s very own artistic director Ben Spiller was invited onto BBC Radio Derby to engage in the debate with presenter Sally Pepper after Benedict Cumberbatch pleaded with fans not to use their phones during his performance of Hamlet at the Barbican just a couple of days before.

A number of other high-profile actors – including the likes of Kevin Spacey, Patti LuPone and Hugh Jackman – have spoken up against audience members using what Benedict Cumberbatch dubbed “funny electronic things” during their performances, occasionally even to the point of breaking character in order to tell people off. While it’s easy to see why a series of flashing lights, shutter sounds and ringtones could be distracting for anybody on stage, it’s crucial that we realise that it’s, as Ben Spiller said, “the way of the world now”.

There was a time when, for much of the general public, the only way to get the theatrical entertainment they desired was to pay to watch a play at the nearest theatre or otherwise put on a show themselves. Needless to say, many found it more desirable to pay and watch someone else put in the work. When cinema came, bringing stories, characters and environments to the screen, audiences no longer had to apply their imaginations in the same way as with theatre. The world was there, effortlessly suspended in front of their eyes. Yet still the theatre lived on.

Then TV came, and people didn’t even have to leave their homes in order to get the entertainment. Still, the theatre lived on. As technology has improved, entertainment has become easier and easier to access and the industry has grown and grown alongside civilisation. It is the ability to adapt that keeps all things alive as the world changes around them. Even now that the internet is here and entertainment is waiting at our fingertips; even now that we can laugh, cry and learn all that we want by simply pressing a few buttons; even now the theatre lives on. It has adapted.  

Click on the image to hear Sally and Ben discuss mobile devices in theatre (interview begins about 15 minutes into the programme)Theatre, too, can be accessed online through live streams and recorded performances, though many would argue that the experience is not nearly the same as when sat in a theatre, in an audience. Now, many people in those audiences may be taking pictures, recording, live-tweeting or choosing the best filter to fit Macbeth’s demise but that is how many people experience things now. That is a large part of what entertainment is for many people these days. That may be a sad indictment, but it is so incredibly human! Be it through cave paintings, YouTube videos or anything else, we humans strive to validate our existence by leaving some kind of mark, be that physical, digital or otherwise. Recording our experiences is by no means a new thing. People have been keeping diaries for a long time! Capturing performances isn’t a new thing either, it’s just become easier to do.

A picture paints a thousand words, right? One photograph can take you right back to the moment, and it can hold the moment’s perspective for as long as the picture exists. It can survive the fading of memories, the muddling of details, and even surpass our very bodies. So if a single picture can hold that much power over our sense of selves and our legacy - to prove to our descendants that once WE lived, and we wore THESE clothes and saw THIS play – then it makes perfect sense for people to want that picture to represent the moment perfectly.

1623 takes Shakespeare onto the streetSo people take more pictures, or better yet, get a video. And if it’s not for other people, maybe they’re saving the memory for themselves. Ben Spiller rightly pointed out that the audiences are “wanting to capture a moment ... so that they can relive it later on”. So is it not complimentary to think that there’s someone in your audience who wants the moment to last forever?

Shakespeare wrote ‘All the world's a stage, / And all the men and women merely players’, and 1623 Theatre Company has certainly taken this on board, taking the theatre outside and into their very audience, constantly looking for new ways to interpret old texts and finding ways to make the theatre as relevant and inviting today as any other medium. As such, it was made clear on the radio broadcast that 1623 don’t ask their audiences not to use their mobile phones, nor do they ask audiences not to take pictures. This is “the way of the world now”.

It’s absolutely vital that theatre continues to evolve to meet the needs of its audience. It’s no use getting hung up over tradition or etiquette. You can’t stop people being human. So don’t hold them back. Follow them. After all, what is art without an audience? Embrace the changes, work with the changes, and if the audience is just a series of flashing lights, shutter sounds and ringtones, then it’s about time you found a way to engage them with the story that you're trying to share with them.


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