Technology in the Theatre: An Evolving Etiquette


As I was surfing the Theatre Communications Group blog this week, I came across a post entitled Text Offender by Erik Liberman. Liberman, an actor, writer, and director with multiple awards and National and International tour and Broadway credits, writes about the place of technology, specifically cell phones, in the world of theater, not only as audience members but also as theater artists. In his post, Liberman asserts that the constant connectivity provided by technology compromises the “greatest pleasure” of the theatrical profession: living in the present.

Because theater is a reflection of the human experience, I think it is interesting to examine the role of mobile devices from a theatrical perspective, especially as Liberman cites this New York Times article, in which the issue of technology addiction is explored.

In order to fully understand why Liberman questions whether some of the magic of theater is being lost because of the overabundance of connectivity, I think it is important to recognize why we choose to attend the theater in the first place. If we go back to 6th Century BC in Athens, theatrical performances were ways for the community to come together and celebrate the seasons, religious holidays, and political happenings. Plays were considered to be a form of catharsis or a method of highlighting the consequences of common human foibles.

In our times, theater seems to be a way to escape and/or connect and share in a common experience. A post titled “Mind over matter: How does theatre keep us hooked?” on the blog, A Younger Theatre, explores this question in further detail and concludes that besides escapism and human connection, theater can also be a medium to experience and respond to events we were not present for, and some of its appeal is because it is live, and each singular moment is unique. To be able to experience all of these things and more in the theater, it is necessary to be aware, focused, and open.  Anyone with experience using the Internet could probably attest to its addictive and attention-stealing nature, and so it makes sense that by staying connected through mobile devices, one compromises the connection to the theatrical art form.

By now, we are all used to that curtain speech reminding us to silence our phones but how would you feel if you saw an actor in a period Shakespearean play with a cell phone in his pocket? This is exactly what Liberman is discussing; now that there is a decided etiquette on cell phone usage in the theater for audience members, what is the etiquette for the artist?

Liberman recalls a time while he was a student of Ann Reinking’s, an American actress, dancer, and choreographer, who told him, “When the director speaks, nobody speaks” because as much can be learned from the director working with another actor as can be learned when one is explicitly interacting with the director. From my experience as an actor, I know this to be true and have found that most people are quiet when the director is addressing only one actor. However, recently, more often than not, in the University setting, the other, quiet, actors in the room are on their phones. I have lost count of how many rehearsals I have been in where the director has asked for all phones to be silenced or kept off-stage.

In the same way that audience members are distracted from what’s on stage by staying connected to their phones, actors cannot be fully focused in a rehearsal if they are checking their phone every time a director works with someone. Actors spend so much time honing their craft, from physical movement and vocal classes, to hours spent poring over scripts and working in the rehearsal space and so, rightly, expect audience members to be fully aware of what is happening on stage. Shouldn’t actors, and all theater artists, demand the same from each other? If we have a lack of respect for what we do in our profession, we cannot expect others to value what we are creating.

Now that I have said my piece about cell phone usage in the theater, I do have to mention that all of this new technology can provide an interesting dynamic to live theater. The New International Theatre Experience (NITE) founded by Douglas Howe and Beatriz Cabur, aims to revolutionize the theatrical landscape by providing virtual opportunities for theatrical experiences. While they are just starting and have a lot of things in the works, they most recently presented “The Around-the-Globe Chain Play” at the Lark Play Development Center in honor of World Theatre Day 2013. The play was written by several different playwrights around the world; each playwright wrote one to three pages of text and then sent the piece off to the next one. It started and ended in New York City and went to Australia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Kosovo, Russia, Germany, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Iceland. In addition to these types of global productions, they also work with actors remotely and broadcast plays around the world thus creating a new platform for theatre and introducing a more global perspective to the art form.

Another example of a unique use of technology in the theater is a play entitled #Hashtag produced by a group called The Mechanical Heart Theater Co. at the Hollywood Fringe Festival this year. Audience members were encouraged to tweet while watching the show, reasoning that because social media has become such an ingrained part of our lives, why not invite it into the “sacred space of theater”?

Theater is a reflection of the human experience and so it makes sense that as humanity has some growing pains adapting to technological use that the theater does as well.

Above image:

-Brittany Johnson, Undermain Emerging Artist