Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent plea to Hamlet audiences asking them to refrain from taking pictures or video during his performance, in some ways seems like the typical “please silence your cell phones throughout the performance” announcement, that often accompanies plays, concerts, and movies. However, this announcement has caused quite the drama (pun intended). There are people who defend Cumberbatch, and lament the horrible influence cell phones and mobile technology has had on our lives. In some ways I understand the point of view of the Cumberbatch supporters, the flashing lights of a camera can be very distracting when you are on stage in a dark theater (although I can’t really imagine that someone who is used to acting in front of multiple cameras, boom mics, and bright lights could really be that distracted by a flashing camera light), and no one wants their hard work to be turned into an internet meme with screaming goats (though Taylor Swift didn’t seem to mind.)
However, some critics of the Cumberbatch announcement have brought up the question of access–does this announcement discourage people from coming to see the show who are more Cumberbatch fans than Shakespeare fans? And shouldn’t the theater be trying to bring in the Cumberbatch fans, and show them how cool Shakespeare actually is?
Lyn Gardner comments that this presents a conundrum for theaters: “on the one had it is desperate to increase diversity and get more people to give it a try, rather than thinking that it’s not for the likes of them, and on the other hand it gets really narked when people who buy theatre tickets don’t know the rules about how you’re expected to behave.” While access to art should be about more than bringing in the Cumberbatch-obsessed Sherlock fans and exposing them to Shakespeare, she brings up a good point–if someone has never been to the theater before, should they be pushed away from it because it seems unwelcoming?
I’m not sure I can come down on either side of this debate–on the one hand I want everyone to feel like the theater is a welcoming place where they can be who they are and not fear getting kicked out if they don’t know the “rules.” The theater has had a long-standing tradition of breaking “rules,” and being a place to challenge conventions. On the other hand, people should be able to enjoy and immerse themselves in the wonders of a live performance, without the distractions of the extra lights, or the bright phone screen. We spend so much of our day with our world mediated through screens–phones, computers, televisions–it is nice that there are still some places where we can just be, and live, and experience, without the pressure of texting about it to our friends or updating Facebook or Twitter.
Either way, I’m not sure, however, that banning phones from the theatre is the answer. I see great potential for the way that theater can adapt to our technological world. It’s hard not to watch something like the recent PSA about texting and driving released by Volkswagen and not see the potential that technology has to get audiences more involved and more engaged with performances. Phones, iPads, iPods, laptops, smart watches, brain-chips in our head (because those will be out soon, right?) could all be used as tools to open up more creative possibilities for theater. Because the truth is, our world is changing. Technology isn’t going away, and it is reshaping how we think, process, and communicate, and this world is going to demand a new kind of theater. As much as I appreciate the sentiment behind asking me to leave my technology at the door, I worry that it is sentiments like this that will pull theater away from the dynamic, engaging, rule-breaking art-form it has always been, and turn it into the stuffy old white man art that many already fear it is. As Gardner points out, Hamlet would not have been performed in silence in Shakespeare’s day, and the raucous audience was one of the pleasures of the theater-going experience. It is only since then that we have turned theater into the silent, formal event that it is. But theater is constantly adapting, so instead of sticking with the old ways, perhaps the answer is to embrace new ones.