Following an alleged Apple update, Carla van der Sluijs considers whether theatres should be more embracing of technology.

Picture yourself sitting in a darkened auditorium, except you are not really there. The action of the stage has grasped you fiercely by the shoulders and dragged you into another world. You are hooked, enthralled, unable to tear yourself away. For a moment, the theatrical illusion before you is the only reality you have ever known. But soft, what light from yonder iPhone breaks? Your eyes snap instantly to the radiant glow in the hand of an audience member in front. And there you are, back in your seat, watching two tired actors push through the dialogue. The spell is broken.

Rumours have surfaced of a new addition Apple have made to iOS 10.3. Allegedly the control centre of their devices will now include a ‘theatre mode’ under the guise of a popcorn logo. This button will, according to AppleInsider, “disable system sounds and haptic feedback, block incoming calls and messages and reduce initial screen brightness.” Such a feature is obviously directed towards use in cinemas rather than theatres, which needs clarifying given how Americans mix the two terms. However, regular theatre goers are finding their outings ruined by the opening scenario more and more frequently, which raises the question of whether theatre should tolerate phones with this function.

The chain AMC Cinemas announced plans a while ago to have ‘text-friendly screenings’ for those who found one screen was simply not enough to keep themselves occupied with. At first glance, this seems a reasonable way of keeping both sides happy, and it also enables film companies to gain instantaneous audience reactions during the movie. In China, ‘bullet screens’ have been introduced where audience opinions on the film, submitted via texting, are projected on to the wall alongside. However, there is no way that theatres could be as accommodating, simply because of the difference in what we are watching. Theatre is much more temperamental and open to human error. Actors often speak of how distracting it is to see a phone light up in the auditorium, and the sub-par performance they give because of this lapse in concentration is disappointing for the entire audience. I can also foresee farce ensuing with actors delivering impassioned monologues on stage before running into the wings to check what tweets have been made about them.

Call me old-fashioned, but I love getting whole-heartedly absorbed into a play. I want it to swallow me up and only spit me out once the house lights rise. Social media does the exact opposite of this by keeping us always aware of the outside world and its opinions. The experience of watching a play is individual to every person in the auditorium and it is best achieved unfiltered by distraction. In a world so focused around multi-tasking, we have an opportunity to switch off. Therefore, it is perhaps not phones that require a ‘theatre mode,’ but audiences themselves.

Carla van der Sluijs