Lasers? What more can be done?

David Fletcher, of the Cumberphone Campaign – a group of performers, writers and theatre professionals who aim to find innovative rather than draconian solutions to the problem – said:

“We welcome anything that helps shine a light on this issue, and Anthony Biggs at Jermyn Street Theatre has been a very outspoken champion of the cause. Chasing down audience-members with lasers is a bit like playing ‘Whack-a-Mole’ – by the time it gets to that stage it’s already too late.

“We support the tireless and brave work being done by ushers and front-of-house staff to help tackle the growing problem – but there’s far more that Theatres can do before a show starts, as we believe prevention is better than cure. Fire-proofing is preferable to fire-fighting – and signage and announcements and safety-curtain projections and the rest will only get you so far, and at the moment they don’t seem to be doing the trick, do they?

“At a minimum, announcements should be made in person, possibly even in character, and not simply over a PA system. And they shouldn’t be the old “reminders” – they need to be a plea, and an explanation, and they need to include a collective routine of us all actually turning our phones off together. Each production can have its own – and it can be something fun that helps get us all in the mood for the show ahead.

“This isn’t about exclusion, or etiquette – regular theatre-goers and people of all ages and backgrounds are equally likely to have an incidence of phone intrusion. There’s a range of issues, from photo-taking and filming, to accidental discharge, to perhaps the most problematic of all – the (seemingly innocuous) checking of your phone – which leads to a lit-up “ghost-face”. On an individual basis, perhaps not the worst offence, but in an auditorium of 1000 people with one in every 20 people engaging in it every few minutes it’s a huge distraction – not just to the actors, but far more crucially to fellow audience members.

“We need a range of measures (Ushers with torches seeking out the worst repeat offenders is perhaps part of that), and our Mobiles Manifesto on our website contains lots of ideas we want theatres to deploy. No one size fits all – what might work at the small Jermyn Street Theatre won’t be the same as at Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

“There’s also a great deal more Theatres can do to help educate audiences (and themselves) about how smartphones actually function. Many of us wrongly assume that “Silent” is ok, but that often means “Vibrate”. Similarly, “Airplane” mode may cut your phone off from the outside world, but it doesn’t cut your phone off from you – it can still ping you with calendar reminders and alarms. The “Do Not Disturb” function has default settings that mean repeat calls can get through. Turning the Ringer Volume down still leaves the ones for Alarms and Music untouched. And turning a phone all the way off (which takes an age) leaves it at the mercy of the slightest flick of the on button – not uncommon if your phone is wedged into your pocket or lolling around in a handbag.

“We can’t really address the issue properly until we fully understand it.

“One of the greatest challenges Theatres face is that a great many of us simply don’t want to turn our phones off. Ever. We’re not used to it. We’re not at all comfortable with the concept. We have them on in our sleep. We’ll diligently switch it to Airplane or Silent (both not nearly enough, as it turns out – see our Stealth Phone page and the “Fly Me To The Moon” initiative for more info), but turning them off is like amputating a limb. And these challenges are only going to increase with the further proliferation and integration of tech into our very personhood.

“Besides, smart phones can take an age to turn off (many mistakes can happen with assuming that you’ve turned your phone off, when it’s still buffering its way through a laborious power-down, ready to abort at the slightest provocation), and even longer to turn back on – with a short interval and the immediacy of craving instant reconnection the moment the curtain goes down (or maybe even the possibility of missing a permitted/encouraged curtain-call photo-op at the end of the show), it should come as no surprise that simply requesting audiences to “turn it off” moments before curtain-up isn’t really working as well as it should.

“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 – where the concern about your phone intruding upon the event is paramount.

“We aim to play our small part in helping making that a reality.”


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Note: Anthony Biggs, Jermyn Street Theatre AD, updated statement (on Facebook): 23:00 17/03/2016 (i.e. after original Times & Sky reports)

Anthony Biggs, Jermyn Street Theatre:

You have may read or heard today that I’m keen to employ lasers to deter people from using their mobile phones in theatres – a practice apparently used by some authoritarian friends in China.

Whilst I often have murderous thoughts about the selfish bastards who persist in checking messages/answering calls/taking photos/filming etc during shows, I’m not really suggesting we laser them. Aside from the danger to people’s eye sight and a possible outbreak of hysteria at the thought of an imminent terrorist attack, I really don’t think it would work on the Brits. For the most part we are a liberal and tolerant lot, and we don’t like to be told what to do.

No, I suggest less stick and more carrot. Let’s look at ways to encourage our audiences to view a theatre performance as a period of joyous release from the tyranny of the smartphone, a time when no one (not even our Bunbury friends with their life threatening illnesses) can contact us, and where we can immerse ourselves fully in make-believe. Even if only for a few hours.

It’s a human need and one we must cherish X


Here’s just a few of the very many examples of recent exasperation from Theatreland’s brightest and best:


Dame Judi Dench: “I can’t see well. But what I can see is red lights all over the theatre, and I know that’s people taking photographs. It’s a kind of oblivion to other people.”

Kenneth Cranham & Claire Skinner, The Father – speaking on the Graham Norton BBC Radio2 show (October 2015) LISTEN:

“Mobiles go off ALL THE TIME. Sometimes I shout: ‘PHONE!'” – Claire Skinner

“It spoils the moment, it really does” – Kenneth Cranham

Eva Noblezada, Kim, Miss Saigon“I’m sorry, but to sit idly in your seat looking at your BRIGHT screen for minutes is just…really?”  (@EvaNoblezada) – 29th August 2015

Ethan Le Phong, Miss Saigon“We have now routinely been spotting people filming our shows. STOP! It’s RUDE! It’s not a concert! We can see the f*cking red light assh*le!” (@EthanLePhong) – 2nd October 2015

Carrie Hope Fletcher, Eponine, Les Miserables“To the absolute A*SE in the upper circle with your red recording light on… YOU, yes YOU, single-handedly, were putting me off… it’s hugely disrespectful to those on stage and those around you…When it’s a concert it’s sort of the norm… Theatres are a very different atmosphere. You’re told in an announcement right before the curtain goes up and there are signs in the theatre.” (@CarrieHFletcher) –  25th August 2015

John Boydon & Sandy Moffat, Jersey Boys“Never known an audience like this! A girl on her phone all of Act 1” (@Sandy_Moffat) – “I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many phones lit up in an auditorium as tonight… Despite the FOH staff trying their best to stop it. Ridiculous, rude and disheartening.” (@JonBoydon) – 4th September 2015

Sam Mackay, Usnavi, In The Heights: “Theatre etiquette 101 – sitting on your phone in the audience is disrespectful to the performers and just plain rude in general. Turn it off. Even if I don;t enjoy a show I’d never be rude enough to sit on my phone – if it’s so bad, leave – do everyone a favour.” (@SamBMackay) – 7th March 2016

The list goes on…!