Cumberphone applauds the Theatre Charter


Theatre-Charter – sign up today to this excellent etiquette charter (We share the charter’s sentiments entirely – why do theatre bars sell sweets in noisy wrappers, and put ice in glasses? Why do people chatter as if they’re watching TV? And why don’t they switch off their damn mobile phones?!)

This is what it says on our Home page about the shared (and differing) aims of the Charter and the Cumberphone Campaign:-

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Here’s some more info about who we are, who we’re not, and what we’re all about…

We do not claim to have all the answers. Neither can we claim to be the only ones asking the questions. We’re just part of the ensemble, here to help enrich the harmony.

The excellent Theatre Charter was launched in July 2014 – and its founder has been a tireless and fearless champion of promoting better theatre etiquette. We’d urge all of you to read and sign the Charter if it takes your fancy, and follow them on twitter too – a voracious theatre-goer, an avid theatre-lover and a guardian of sanity and decency at the pioneering vanguard of this struggle. We applaud the Charter’s efforts, and the army of 2,000 who have already signed-up – bravo!

The Cumberphone Campaign is somewhat different. Firstly, we’re focusing solely on the issue of mobile phones. Secondly, for us it’s not so much a question of “etiquette” – for many, the very word itself raises hackles (though we of course fully support such a drive to raise standards of behaviour) – but of assisting even the most polite and diligent of theatre-going souls in mastering the art of the phone (e.g. see our Stealth-Phone guide). After all, if even Nicholas Hytner and The Stage’s Mark Shenton and Theatre Charter-backer Terri Paddock’s phones can all go off during a show, then we’re probably facing a struggle against something more than poor etiquette alone.

Above all, we want to make it fun, as we are keenly aware that the Stephen Fry-backed Charter attracted some very unjust flak last summer for being “red-trousered”, “passive-agressive”, “theatre police” etc – sadly par-for-the-course whenever us Theatrefolk have the temerity to advocate for Theatre’s special place in our society.

  • We are emphatically not a bunch of “huffy Luddite Luvvies” – we love our phones, we really do. We aim to bring together a broad spectrum of theatre-lovers, from the exasperated angry shushers to the laid-back shoulder-shruggers.

So the Cumberphone Campaign is merely here to lend a cheerful helping hand along the trail that has been blazed by our Chartist friends. Think of us, if you like, as Friends of the Earth to their Greenpeace, or as Professor Brian Cox to their Richard Dawkins.

Our Mobiles Manifesto concentrates on offering some positive steps (some far-fetched, some surely a no-brainer) that we in Theatreland can take towards better addressing this issue collectively.

There’s no panacea, no one solution.

But surely, if we all pull together, we can do better? Because at the moment, the phones are winning – but they’re our phones, so let’s show them who’s boss! They’re always going to go off from time to time no matter what we do, but at the moment we’re just making it far too easy for them. We can’t sniff at them over our pince-nez and hope for the best, but neither should we throw our hands up in the air and simply give up. It’s also understandable that so many of us these days (and that number is only going to increase with the newer generation of theatre-goers and the further proliferation and integration of tech into our very personhood) think selfies and filming and mid-show texting is ok – we’re addicted, aren’t we?

You can even use your phone on the Tube and on airplanes now. The Theatre is one of the few remaining bastions, or rather refuges – and we should aim to more enticingly sell it as such. We should think of it less as a fortress, and more as a spa – regarded not just as a place where you can’t use your phone as you normally would for the other 21 hours of your small-screen-dominated day, but rather a place where we feel we are relieved and grateful not to be able to do so. It should feel less like entering a prison camp, and more like going to your best friend’s wedding or your grandmother’s funeral – where the concern about your phone intruding upon the event is paramount (well, after the joy/sorrow of the important family occasion, naturally).

We’re not anti-phone at all. Far from it – we’re very pro-phone, and so we’d simply like Theatre to catch up a little faster please.

We want Theatre to better embrace technology (no, we’re not advocating for “tweet seats” – an “operatically stupid” idea in the eyes of many) – we want better WiFi; we want more e-ticketing and theatre apps (no, we’re not sponsored by TodayTix); we want more digital programmes and content (NT Backstage is great, and they’re finally getting a proper mobile site up soon too); we want more NT Live and Digital Theatre and the like; and we want theatres to interact with the audience through their phones far better than they do now.

Great efforts are being made to have us buy our interval drinks through ATG’s Ordertorium app (with accompanying all-seats leaflet drop) and via the likes of the Barbican Bars app. So why not make more of an effort to sell us ideas through our phones, rather than just tickets and drinks and programmes? Perhaps, for instance, we’d be more likely to turn our phones off if we were texted a link to a star-studded funny short film (like these) than blared at over a PA system?

Education and a cultural shift will only go so far however. In the West End in particular a huge proportion of the audience are from overseas or out-of-town and often irregular theatre-goers – so no amount of brilliant and ceaseless coverage in the likes of The Stage is going to have much of a direct significant impact on these folk.

So our best option is to do a better job of the pre-show routine. But this isn’t just about the announcements a few moments before curtains-up – however funny or pleading or threatening they may be. From the moment you buy your tickets, there are a number of ‘nudges’ that can be deployed to better prepare theatre-goers. We aim to better institutionalise these processes across the industry – and there’s safety in numbers. No one theatre or production wants to be that awkward, prissy, irascible nerd who won’t stop banging on about mobile phones, do they? But some can certainly blaze a trail.

Places like the Lyric Hammersmith who do so much work with young people should integrate phone-ed into their outreach, productions like the record-sell-outs that are the Barbican’s Hamlet, the Menier’s Funny Girl or the forthcoming Leicester Curve tour of Pixie Lott in Breakfast at Tiffany’s will be able to reach out to fresh parts of the audience, and we hope they embrace that opportunity. Interactive rowdy musicals like Rocky Horror, or smash hits like Mormon, can grab the audience by the figurative throat. And Hangmen at the Royal Court, well, you can see where we’re going with this.

Hampstead and the Almeida, as well as transferring brilliant productions, can also be conduits for innovative phone initiatives too. (Anyone who saw Privacy at the Donmar and who didn’t change their phone’s meta-data-gathering location settings afterwards, raise your hand.) Michael Grandage (with his great pricing initiatives) and Kenneth Branagh (nice trailers by the way) and the new regimes at the National and the Old Vic – let’s see what you’ve got. And as for the exciting new Hytner/Starr theatre – what a golden opportunity to get things right from the outset.

Sorry if this all sounds too London-centric – we just thought we should probably start by shooting the fish in that barrel first. But through the likes of ATG and START – and a dedicated band of touring actors – we hope to spread far and wide. The West End may be the epicentre of the Theatre universe, but – just as the Nicene Creed wasn’t born in Bethlehem – we fully expect some brilliant idea or shining beacon of excellence to emerge from the likes of Chichester Festival, Theatre Royal Bath, the Edinburgh Fringe, or perhaps the Sheffield Crucible with its wealth of experience hosting the ultimate of all hear-a-pin-drop events, Snooker. So it’s not just about London, and it’s not solely about “theatre” – those companies and venues who produce dance, recitals, concerts, gigs, stand-ups – there’s plenty to be learnt and shared across the board and we welcome ideas from all quarters.

Theatre can draw on the most creative, funny and inspiring bunch. Phones are a bit of an issue, aren’t they, and not just at the theatre, so let’s see if we can do something about it then shall we? If not us, then who? If not now, then when?

As for the pre-show announcements – be they films, safety curtain projections, a polite FOH manager or an hilarious cast member – they need, in our view, to be more substantial. They should not be brief reminders or stern threats – they should be an integral part of the theatre-going experience. We need to consider the notion of having them more akin to the old Curtain-Raisers. And not to the detriment of, or distraction from, the main event either – but something positive that can serve to warm up the audience and bring us all together (that band playing before One Man, Two Guvnors being a superb example of how to get everyone properly in the mood). More like a 5-star gourmet amuse-bouche served ‘compliments of the chef’ than a basket of stale bread just plonked down on the table by an underpaid tip-less waiter as they monotonously read from the ‘specials’ board.

That’s not to say, of course, that one size fits all – whether that be technological or theatrical. What works in the Arcola or at The Park isn’t necessarily going to fly in Drury Lane or the Apollo. We get that.

It’s our sincere hope that this campaign can play its small part in bringing us all together to discuss these issues and explore these ideas perhaps a little better and more substantially than we’ve managed to thus far. And crucially, in discussing them, to focus on how to actually implement them and establish industry-wide best practice.

We’ll give it a go anyway. And we hope that you’ll be willing to be part of that conversation with us. At times some of our rhetoric may seem a little too strident or florid for some people’s tastes – but, hey, it’s a campaign after all, and we want it to be fun (dramatic, even, although we’ll try our hardest not too flounce too much), so we hope you’ll forgive us our foibles.

If you’ve come this far, maybe (hopefully) you’re willing to come a little further…

Along the way we’ll do our utmost to always respect the fact that theatres and those running them have a ridiculous amount on their plates – not least the most basic concerns over funding to ensure survival, and the monumental effort it takes just to put on a show – without us adding to their worries.  We don’t wish to be a thorn in anyone’s side – but instead a blooming rose. And for those wonderful performers we hope to enlist along the way, we appreciate there are a plethora of other good-causes more worthy of your attention, to say nothing of lines to learn, marks to find and digs to locate.

Most of all we’ll always aim to improve and to be inclusive – all ideas welcome, all contributions valued.

“No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.” – Samuel Beckett

The Cumberphone Campaign is not an organisation – it is an idea.

Twitter – @cumberphone

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Phone – Sorry, we’re at the Theatre! 😉