The Theatre Charter aims to stop people using their phones during performances

The Theatre Charter aims to stop people using their phones during performances

Have you lost count how many times a mobile has gone off when you’re at the theatre? I have. And I marvel at the timing. Doesn’t it always seem to be at a quiet, crucial moment of performance?

In truth, what’s started to annoy me even more than mobiles ringing – it is possible accidentally to forget to turn it off or have it somehow turn itself on of its own accord (this happened to me, I swear) – is the glow of the smartphone screen as people obsessively Tweet or check their email throughout a performance. Without any apparent shame whatsoever. Do they really think that we – or the actors – can’t see them, their fingers and faces lit up in the gloom?

Martin Freeman’s Richard III caused a media hoopla recently around young Hobbit and Sherlock fans allegedly “ruining” the production by cheering at inappropriate moments. It’s hard to imagine just how inappropriate cheering at Shakespeare might be. In any case, contrary to the press reports, when I attended Jamie Lloyd’s production, the under-20s I noticed were all perfectly well behaved.

Not so two middle-aged women reaching for their handbags every five minutes, doing that smartphone check thing throughout. These women were in the third row. Of the steeply raked Trafalgar Studios 1 (thus, perfectly visible to the scores of people behind them and on the stage). On opening night!

When I tweeted about this (from my desk, after the performance), I was surprised by some of the responses, which suggest that (young and/or) unseasoned theatregoers are hardly the only culprits when it comes to theatre disruption:

Whether ignorance or entitlement is to blame, however, the mobile problem in theatres is only getting worse. If your own personal experience doesn’t verify that, the increasing frequency of mobile theatrical rage reported on in the newspapers must.

Actors who have hit the headlines by hitting out at ringers during their performances have included the late Richard Griffiths (on several occasions and on both sides of the Atlantic), James McAvoy, Kevin Spacey, Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig. I especially liked Jenny Seagrove’s way of dealing with the situation when she was in the West End in a revival of Noel Coward’s Volcano in 2012. As the ringing went on incessantly, she adapted one of her character’s speeches.

In Jenny Seagrove’s version of Coward: “The world will be a better and more peaceful place in the future. Hopefully, nobody will get around to inventing mobile telephones.”

So the actors are doing their bit, and managements are trying, with all manner of announcements, from amusing to stern, to remind theatregoers to turn off their mobile phones. Jermyn Street artistic director Anthony Biggs went very public last week, demanding a crackdown on mobile phones after his theatre ejected a man suspected of filming naked actors on his phone (the man said he was texting his son and no footage was found). Theatre_Charter_PNG_500x500

And, now theatregoers are taking action in the stalls and galleries. Full kudos to my friend and former colleague Richard Gresham, who has set up Theatre Charter, which asks theatregoers to make a commitment to respectful behaviour – most importantly, switching off those mobiles! – and encouraging it in others, be they of the ignorant and/or entitled variety.

Full disclosure, Richard asked for my help in launching  Theatre Charter and spreading the word on Twitter. I appreciate that, as some opponents have commented today after Stephen Fry tweeted about our campaign, that the Charter may seem to some as “passive-aggressive” or divisive.

When Richard first showed me the Charter, I teasingly suggested that he should use the hashtag #TheatreNazi! We subsequently toned it down, and put the emphasis on positive, polite action. The point is absolutely not to put off new theatregoers by appearing stuffy or whingeing, but to improve the theatregoing experience for everyone.

As it is, long-standing theatregoers like Richard – who, for many many years, has regularly organised huge groups of his friends for theatre nights out – are the ones being put off booking tickets to many shows. And putting off theatre’s biggest customers isn’t good for anyone.

I say good luck to the Theatre Chartist movement.

>> Read and sign the Theatre Charter here.