Sunday 23 July 2017

Turn off that phone unless you want the central role in an embarrassing scene

About 20 minutes into the play, I noticed the low, distant hum of a mobile phone. I thought at first it was coming from outside. You could just hear the buzzing whenever the lone actor on stage paused. The play was a one-man show at lunchtime at Bewley's, called Diceman.

Normally, a phone ringing in the theatre provokes a frantic reaction by the owner and disgusted side glances from their neighbours. "Why don't they brazen it out?" I've thought: after all, in the dark, it's the phone owner's response that identifies them.

This phone in Bewley's – which was still humming quietly but insistently – set me idly thinking about my own. I made a mental check: I had put it on "airplane" mode, before putting it in my bag, on the floor. Airplane mode blocks all calls. I was safe, so.

Then it occurred to me that airplane mode doesn't block alarms. And then it occurred to me that I had set a reminder for myself for that afternoon – for 1.30pm. Argh! The offending phone was mine!

Now that I realised the buzzing was coming from my bag, the sound seemed to rise up and fill the theatre. A bead of sweat formed on my back. Heat rose to my face. I glanced casually around me. A woman cast her head in my direction. I avoided her eye; tried to look inscrutable. It would stop soon – best not to draw attention.

By now, my shirt was wet. I could hear a roaring in my ears. Could I surreptitiously dig the phone out of my bag? What if it sounded much louder when I opened the bag?

Eventually, I reached down for the bag, found it and switched it off. The actor hadn't stopped and accused me; I had gotten away with it. But I also felt like I'd made a public confession, and was now shamed in front of the whole theatre.

Karl Shiels has no sympathy. On stage in London in Mark O'Rowe's sociopathic Howie the Rookie, he and co-star Aidan Kelly were given "carte blanche" to ad lib in character if a phone went off. "We lost it," recalls Shiels. "We verbally attacked them." Did anyone ever answer back? "What? They were terrified."

Most actors ignore phones. But the best respond – in character. On Broadway, Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman (James Bond and Wolverine, to their groupies) were interrupted by a persistent ringing during a performance of A Steady Rain. "You wanna get that?" Jackman asked, acidly, in character as a Chicago cop. The phone rang on. "Come on, just turn it off," he ordered, "unless you gotta better story. You wanna get up and tell your story?" Showing nerves of steel – or perhaps frozen with fear – the audience member didn't respond. The phone rang on, and rang out.

Starring in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, Rupert Everett responded to an audience phone by asking, "Have we gotten a new-fangled doorbell?" He went on: "See who it is, and if they are trade. . . shoot them." The audience roared.

Unfortunately, the audience member at The Pitmen Painters at the Gaiety wasn't so quiescent. Not only did his phone ring, but he answered it. "I'm just here at the theatre," he said, loudly, before the audience rounded on him.

Had Karl Shiels been on stage, the man would hardly have dared. But then, Shiels's own sheet isn't exactly clean. At the Theatre Upstairs on Eden Quay, which he runs, he instructs audiences before the show to take out their phones and turn them off. He takes out his own phone to help make the point.

As he did so one afternoon recently, his phone rang. He looked at it. It was his agent. He looked quickly at his audience, and looked again at his phone. Shiels loves his little theatre; but an actor's gotta eat. He took the call.

The moral of the story, then, is a complex one. Don't trust yourself that your phone is off. Turn off your phone if an actor tells you to. Don't brazen it out unless you're really, really sure you can brazen it out. And don't answer your phone in the theatre. . . unless you own it.

colinmurphy@independent.ie

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