Mobile Phones in Theatre: Welcome It, Embrace It and Include It in the creation of your musical.

Many peers and colleagues of mine often take to social media to vent the frustration of seeing an audience member on their phone while you’re trying to give them your best face-melting belt. I get it, It’s disrespectful and really jarrring. BUT, As someone who loves technology and the doors it can open, I’m not going to go as far as agreeing with the keyboard warriors taking to twitter proclaiming that phones have no place in theatre. Sorry.  

If anything, I think they have a really exciting and rightful place in theatreland. Problem is that you need to welcome it, embrace it and include it in the very creation of your musical from the off. 

Here is a list of 10 ways we can theoretically intergrate mobile phones in theatre. The idea is that if you give an audience a place and time for smartphones, they should stay off them for the remainder of the show. 

HEAR ME OUT!

1. Selfie Spots  

It’s not weird for an audience to want to be able to capture a moment of their experience and put it on twitter. It’s annoying sure, but it’s not weird. If you want to stop people taking photos during a show, then tell them where they’re actually allowed to take photos. In the encore number of Motown, we always have audiences taking photos and videos, (sure, they’re not supposed too, but with 1400 people dancing to Stevie Wonder, the Ushers can’t really do a lot to stop it). Point is, I’d rather someone film me singing and dancing in a joyous, 4th-wall-breaking ensemble number, than distract me by using shooting a flash photo in a number that’s meant to be intimate and emotional. 

2. Digital Playbill

I STILL DONT GET WHY WE DON’T HAVE PLAYBILLS HERE. But that’s not the point of this one. The idea for this is that we have a digital version, save the environment and that. Get the audience to scan a QR code as they walk into the building that allows them to download a PDF playbill of the show. Not everyone wants (or needs) a glossy £7 souvenir programme. Rather than have the audience leave with little to no information, just give them what they actually want for free. I’m sure they’re more likely to read something that’s saved to the ‘iBooks’ on their iPhone, than go into that memorabilia box under their bed and dust off the programme that they bought 8 months ago.  

3. Augmented Reality

Ok, Bare with me for this one. It’s a bit techy and requires a fair amount of imagination. Augmented Reality is the technology that when paired with your phone, will show you things that aren’t really their. E.G Using IKEA’s AR app to see if furniture will look good in the living room without having to actually buy or assemble it. Imagine having tickets to wicked, and being sat in your seat with 10 minutes to spare, now imagine that scanning the room with your iPhone will show you flying monkeys messing around in the box, or hovering on that golden dragon thing (sorry fans 😬) and seeing it animate and come to life? It’s another dimension of magic. 

4. Games

Admittedly,  this isn’t one to implement during a show, but I do think that the experience of theatre is something that should start before the show and survive long after it ends. A simple, enjoyable app is a good way to do that! Maybe a version of ‘Temple Runner’ that features Aladdin running out of the cave? Or one of those ‘21 Questions’ apps, but themed and dressed to fit the omniscient Genie? It’s novel and just a bit of fun, but still worth thinking about.  

5. Beacons

So, a ‘Beacon’ is basically a signal that can throw information at someone’s phone without them actually asking for it.  A bit like if you try and ‘airdrop’ someone a photo or file that they didn’t ask for. I know it sounds super aggressive but it’s not really. It’s just the idea that you can share information with people in real time. To use the example of Wicked again, I know there are super fans that would of seen the show so many times that they’d probably happily sit at the back with an iPhone that’s showing them behind the scenes looks at the creative process. Imagine watching ‘Dancing Through Life’ and having your phone buzz, offering a video of the choreographer putting the very first version on it’s feet, or watching Defying Gravity and being prompted to see a dissected view of the automation and tech that actually makes her fly? You could also use it during the curtain call - As a lead takes their bow, your phone can show you her name, headshot and social media profiles without you lifting a finger. 

6.  Connection to the Artists

Smartphones and Social Media were literally invented to connect people to each other, and the official accounts of Musicals are always desperately clamouring to engage with audiences outside of show hours, it seems fitting that they should implement some kind of connection during the actual show. E.G Projecting a Social Media Q&A wall onto the safety curtain during the interval. Give the audience a hashtag and the opportunity to chat with one of the actors while they wait for Act 2 to start? 

7. Change The Story

You know those ‘decide your own ending’ books that you read as a kid? Turn to page 29 if you want to go down the slipper stairs, turn to page 45 if you want to go through the diamond door? Imagine if you had the power to dictate the plot of a musical like you could the plot of those books?  

This could be implemented in so many ways. E.G Jo Noel-Hartley wrote a Musical revue called ‘The A-Z of Musicals©️’, a show that journeyed through 26 musical numbers with titles that followed the alphabet. Every 4 numbers the Ensemble of the show would step on stage and split into 2 groups, each group dressed in distinctly different costumes. It would be up to the audience to decide on what they wanted to see next. ‘Do You Hear The People Sing’ Vs ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’, ‘Seasons Of Love’ Vs ‘Sunrise Sunset’. The Audience of this particular show voted by holding up different coloured peices of card, (but that was nearly a decade ago).

It’s a simple idea and wouldn’t be hard to implement. I think there’s something really special about giving every audience a slightly different show. 

8. Captions / Audio Descriptions and Directors Commentary

This must already exist right? Around 1 in every 100 shows are designed for audiences with Audio/Visual disabilities. Intergrate an iPhone into the show and you allow the joy of theatre to everyone, all the time. A blind audience member could have headphones in and enjoy an audio described musical whenever they want! Or design an app that captions the performance instead of having to bring in specific equipment everytime you want to dacilitate for a deaf audience.This must already be a thing... surely. 

It would also be a cool way of allowing super fans to listen to a Directors commentary, giving them an extra layer of theatre without affecting anyone else’s enjoyment.  

9. Audience Participation

I’m gonna talk about Legoland for a hot second. At Legoland they have this pirate themed stunt show, there are lots of tricks and boats and water and stuff and it’s all very exciting. Among the audience are these podiums with big red buttons on. They lie dormant and useless until the dramatic climax of the show, where an actor desperately instructs the button-bearing-child to hit it as hard as they can. It appears to trigger some kind of explosion or something that knocks the villain out, and just like that, the child thinks that they’ve saved the day. 

For the record, I’m not suggesting that we arm an audience with apps that control pyros or anything... that would be a disaster, but i’m sure the format that Legoland have nailed could easily be applied to a big budget Panto or something right?

10. Lock Em Up

The final suggestion for where phones belong in theatre,.

If you’re 100 years old and you really (and I mean really) can’t fathom the idea of allowing smart phones into theatreland, then I do have a really simple way that’s guaranteed to have teenagers practically begging for you to take away their mobile phones.  

Offer to charge them.  

Because most people would rather go without a phone for 3 hours, than have it die on the commute home. Those charging lockers that they have in shopping centres and theme parks will work just aswell in the foyer of a theatre!

 

To Conclude :  

I know that some of these ideas are a little farfetched, and no, I can’t imagine Mr Lloyd Webber writing the use of mobile phones into The Phantom Of The Opera, or a version of Les Mis where you decide which brother dies... BUT my theory is that if you build smartphone inclusion into the very fabric of the musical from the start, then there’s a chance that maybe the audience wont feel compelled to check in on facebook during that reprise that no one asked for. 🤷🏾‍♂️

Let me know what you think in the comments below!