It’s easily done. You leave your phone on silent, and then you receive a text message. Just a quick look won’t do any harm, surely? And then the next moment, the lights go up and an actor is berating you from the stage.
A performance of Statements by Athol Fugard in London’s West End was abruptly halted this week when the lead actor, who was naked at the time, accused an audience member of recording the show. The theatregoer insisted he was texting his sick son – but the incident has led the theatre’s artistic director to call for a crackdown on smartphones in the theatre.
“The play is set in Apartheid-era South Africa,” says Anthony Biggs of the Jermyn Street Theatre. “It’s a highly charged, moving play, which requires concentration to watch as well as real sensitivity from the performers. We made sure the stage was lit so there was no sense of the actors being exploited when they were naked, and then to have someone in the front row with their phone on, possibly filming, was a real concern for them – where could that footage end up?”
It’s the latest example of ‘stage rage’, in which performers are so disturbed by an audience member that they issue a smart putdown or launch into a tirade. While performing the title role in Macbeth in 2013, James McAvoy told a man to turn off his phone and growled “shut up” at a pair of drunk women who were talking loudly. In a 2009 production of Heavy Rain in New York, Hugh Jackman responded to a ringing phone by inviting its owner to come on stage and share the call with the audience.
Dressed in full royal garb as the Queen earlier this year, Helen Mirren exited a performance of The Audience in London to silence a group of drummers playing noisily outside the theatre. And old hand Kevin Spacey has lambasted audience members in character as both Clarence Darrow and Richard III. When a woman’s phone rang during a performance of The Iceman Cometh in 1999, he told her to “tell them we’re busy.”
Biggs wants badly behaved audience members to be forced to adhere to a ‘charter of etiquette’. “We’ve already got a Theatre Charter, aiming for audiences to treat fellow theatregoers and the people they’re coming to see with respect. It includes making sure you turn up on time, not taking off lots of clothes in the middle of the show and making sure you’ve used the toilet before it starts.
“People have imported what they do in cinemas to theatres, thinking it’s acceptable to eat sweets with wrappers that rustle or to open a can of Coke. But you’re not just sitting there, you’re engaging with something that’s going on. You’re as important as what’s going on: a film can be played in the dark to no one but theatre doesn’t exist without an audience.”
He is particularly worried about the use of phones. “It’s going on all the time – at my theatre, phones ring during performances almost on a daily basis.”
Some theatres have embraced the smartphone obsession, and companies in London and New York have introduced Tweeting Zones where audience members can connect to social media during a show. In Privacy, a new play staged at the Donmar Warehouse in London, the phone took centre stage. The audience was asked to take selfies and email them to the theatre company, who incorporated them into the drama.
Yet most theatres are looking for ways to reduce the intrusion of smartphones in performances. It has been suggested that theatregoers should deposit phones in lockers before a performance, or that theatres should even use technology to jam mobile phone signals. But Biggs thinks the only effective way is self-regulation.
“We need to make it a ritual that we turn off our phones in theatres, like putting on a seatbelt when you get in a car.” He would have two messages reminding people before a show – one recorded and one live – to develop a culture where it’s not acceptable. Transgressors would be punished.
“If someone is caught using a phone in my theatre, they’re not welcome back. We may decide on a year ban. You need something that’s fairly draconian. I would love it if all theatres linked up and barred offenders.”
This would mean that, apart from undergoing surgery or taking a flight, seeing a play could offer one of the only respites from our smartphones. “I’m not a Luddite, I use my phone all the time, but there has to be somewhere you turn off your phone – where there’s silence.”
Have you been annoyed by noisy or disruptive theatregoers? Tell us your horror stories on our Facebook page.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to Facebook or message us on Twitter.