To most theatre-goers, this sounds like a set up for a joke. But theatre consultant Ian Stickland argues that there is a place for using smartphones in the theatre. And not in your bag.
Theatre 2016 took place last week, with Stickland’s ‘controversial’ comments made before the conference. Stickland rallied for theatres to ‘integrate technology into performance’, and warned, ‘We are missing the opportunity to create meaningful, personal theatre’.
He makes a valid point, to some extent. Theatre is one of the only mediums which does not engage technologically with its audience. Both television and movies employ QR codes; when scanned with a smartphone, these send the user to specific advertising or tie in media. This is one piece of integrated technology which I am amazed has not been employed more frequently. I’m not suggesting it as a means for advertising. But why not have QR codes ‘hidden’ around the theatre, for audience members to scan for tie in content or exclusive content such as interviews?
This, however, could be restricted to before the show or in the interval. Stickland seems to argue for taking this a one step further: using smartphones during a show. ‘Why don’t we find the right technology to allow digital interaction to be combined with the wonderful interaction that we all love about theatre?’ The possibilities for such ‘digital interaction’ endless: in-show polls which affect the outcome, to change lights and sound, to project tweets on to the backdrop. All ways of engaging the audience with the story, allowing them to become a part of it and affect change.
While it breaks the third wall between actor and audience, it simultaneously creates a new and very physical 5th wall: a screen. It risks not engaging audiences but rather alienating them. Give them a distraction and you lose their attention. Be it someone opening a sweet wrapper, frisky pigeons at the Globe, or their own phone. Aside from that, I’ve made my opinion on the use of phones in the theatre abundantly clear. Anything which encourages that little blue screen needs serious thought.
In the last few years, we have seen an increase in interactive theatre experiences and Stickland’s enthusiasm for digital interaction is to be admired. It certainly seems to be the next logical step and, personally, I’m all for integrating ‘digital interaction’. As long as it doesn’t jeopardise that ‘wonderful interaction’ at the heart of theatre. Whether that is using smartphones or another form of technology is the real question. Because part of me still wants to do this when I see a phone in a theatre…
All quotations from The Stage: https://www.thestage.co.uk/news/2016/439665/