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Actors and theatres shouldn't be scared of signs of life in an audience – and that includes ringtones, says Benjamin Halligan

Sunday 23 October 2011 03:19

Chasing after theatre culture in London's West End has become a disconcerting experience for the ticket buyer.

Name theatres have been "hollowed out", in the neo-liberal manner, and the resultant shell leased to a rota of interested parties: theatre companies and their productions, of course, but also businesses seeking hospitality venues to impress for receptions and presentations. Ticket selling is outsourced too, with the result that the theatre box-office kiosk has become little more than a manned portal to the virtual box-office conglomerate. You'll be told that there are no tickets left for a production opening months hence and redirected to the theatre's website, which will link to the theatre's official (that is, approved) ticketing agency. Here tickets are plentiful but resold at an enormous mark-up, typically in the region of 500 per cent. So for a family of four to sit in the stalls of an "event" West End production, the damage from this institutionalisation of ticket scalping can run to four figures.

Yet this kind of money does not buy the opportunity to step into a "traditional" event, or buy a way into, or be part of, something historical. The experience on the night is fragmented, and akin to that of an open-air music festival with its subcontracted facilities and passing-through stars and the visibility of brand name sponsorship and limpet cottage industries. The production is parachuted in, along with programme sellers, with the actual front-of-house theatre staff – themselves increasingly subject to casualisation – left to serve the drinks and rip the tickets. Within minutes of the curtain falling, individual cast members can be seen to bolt from the building into the car waiting to whisk them to their hotel, often provided by the ticketing agency. In this set-up, the theatre event is bereft of history, place, bustle, community and ritual – the very ingredients that constitute the uniqueness of the experience understood to finesse or even justify that painful 500 per cent mark-up. And this, I would suggest, is the context for the recent phenomenon of "mobile phone incidents".

Bleeps and ringtones, tuts and shushes, the dramatic text interrupted by the pings of the incoming text and – if you're very unlucky – a one-on-one with some of the great thespians of our time. Name actors, some momentarily unrestrained by the dignity of their knighted offices, have suspended their performances mid-flow, along with the very play itself, to turn their ire on, via a direct address dressing-down, those whose dittying mobile has broken the spell of the willing suspension of disbelief. The ripples on the normally calm surface of assumed behaviour increasingly wash up in the tabloid and broadsheet press as a concern with the behaviour in and appropriate to the theatre.

What's the subtext of "Please ensure that your mobile phone is turned off"? Something along the lines of "Keep your clamour outside! In here is theatre, which has no truck with your temporal ephemera." Electronic smog is to be dispelled from the pure air in and through which the actor performs. This is the art form that demands both attention and, as a sign of attention, silence. This ridiculous bluster and hubris over mobiles is, surely, the attempt at re-establishing the way theatre has been known. However, mobiles could be that missing uniqueness of the theatre event. The absolute demand for respect and silence is a sign of desperation and a measure of hypocrisy.

The resultant de facto ban on mobile use is evidence that the theatre building is dead rather than just, as successive generations of upstart playwrights have it, that the theatre is dead. Our enraged actors should silently thank audience members for the disruption. This is what performance needs to surpass to gain attention, and, in so doing, recast the theatre as a place of non-virtual life.

Benjamin Halligan is senior lecturer in performance at the University of Salford

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