Theatre Through a Tiny Screen

Earlier this month, Benedict Cumberbatch made news in London by asking his fans who had come to see him in Hamlet to record a message using their cellphones. He urged fans to stop trying to record live performances. “It’s mortifying and there is nothing less supportive or enjoyable as an actor onstage experiencing that,” said Cumberbatch. He wanted the message to reach as wide an audience as possible, imploring them to share their videos of this speech on the internet. They did, and he made headlines all over the world.

Watch this video on YouTube.

Cell phones have recently been a hot topic in the theatre community, ever since Patti LuPone confiscated a cell phone from an audience member at a performance of Shows for Days. Now, Cumberbatch is flipping the script by trying to appeal to audience members, asking them to use the very same devices they were using to pirate his show to make sure as many people as possible were informed of the issue. Instead of merely complaining to press about the use of cell phones in theaters, he decided to take a more methodical approach and ask the audience members to spread his message for him- a creative solution, to say the least.

The issue of pirating theater has long been an issue, but more so now that devices are getting smaller and more compact. Every cell phone has the capability to record audio and video, sometimes unnoticeably. Working as an usher, I have had to ask many patrons to stop using their cell phones to take pictures or video before or during performances. It is extremely disrespectful to the actors trying to perform onstage, as well as a violation of intellectual copyright. But people think that when they buy a ticket to a performance it gives them the right to do whatever they want, including documenting the performance they’re attending. No matter how we try to stop them, bootleg versions of almost any Broadway show can be found on youtube these days. Is it not enough to just sit in a theatre and experience the show happening LIVE in front of you? In this age of ever-increasing technology where people are glued to electronic devices, is it too much to ask to unplug for 2 hours?

I don’t think anyone has the perfect solution to this problem, and that’s unfortunate. One of the main reasons I love performing and attending live theatre is because of the interaction between the audience and performers. But if you’re so worried about recording something and watching it through a screen, are you really getting the full experience of the show? No. You’re not. And that’s the problem with this increase in technology and dependency on cell phones: we have become less involved with the world around us, and more involved in our screens. Even at a live performance we can’t stay off our phones. And no matter how hard performers might try to combat this phenomenon, I don’t know if it will ever go away. But I applaud Mr. Cumberbatch for trying. He took the most novel approach so far by using this technology for good, and now thousands of people have seen his speech on youtube. Who knows if it will affect any change. At least it made headlines and spread awareness of the issue farther than ever before. And until someone figures out a solution to this problem, there’s always Patti LuPone to take the phones away.

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