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Theatre Audience Etiquette

Updated on December 18, 2017
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

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There is an unspoken contract between theatre audiences and performers that each concentrates and focuses to enhance the enjoyment of a production. Disruptive behaviour by individuals breaks the spell that engages us with the story being told.

The imagined view of an Elizabethan performance by C. Walter Hodges.
The imagined view of an Elizabethan performance by C. Walter Hodges. | Source

Silence Is Golden

Theatres are built so that voices, including those of audience members, can be heard in every seat. If you can hear the actors, the actors can hear you.

In Shakespeare’s time audiences were rowdy and he was moved to admonish them: “These are the youths that thunder at a playhouse, and fight for bitten apples …” (Henry VIII, Act 5, Scene 4).

Those attending Victorian melodramas often hissed and booed the villain who would turn to the audience, twirl the ends of his moustache, and growl. At traditional English pantomimes audience participation is required.

However, other than laughing at the comedy lines and sobbing at the sad bits, theatre etiquette demands that audiences be quiet. “Many a time and oft” (Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 3) have I endured nitwits chattering in seats nearby.

I recall a performance of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman with an elderly couple behind me. He kept asking “What did he say?” and she kept repeating the lines.

The correct procedure is to turn around and give the offenders the hairy eyeball glare. If that doesn’t work then a staccato “Shh” is usually enough to turn off the babble. Failing that it’s time to call in the heavy artillery in the form of ushers.

But, why deaf people go to the theatre and don’t avail themselves of the hearing devices provided is a mystery.

You Are Entitled to Only One Seat

Recently, my wife and I went to see a production of The Sound of Music; it was a cracker of a performance that was almost ruined by another patron.

In the seat next to ours was a lady of generous proportions, as in humongously fat, Gargantua in the 450+ pound range. She occupied her seat plus a quarter of mine, and a quarter of her friend’s on the other side.

Some might be moved to ask if she would kindly fork over 25 percent of the $120 cost of my seat as I had no access to it, blocked as I was by quivering mounds of flesh. But, I’m Canadian and therefore prevented by law from being rude. If someone steps on my toe in a line-up it is a requirement of my citizenship that I say “Sorry.”

It turned out that a face-saving solution was available. Two seats across the aisle were unoccupied, so allowing time for latecomers to arrive we moved. Interestingly, the large lady moved into one or more of our vacated seats so her companion could breathe again.

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The Dread Devices

Before every performance theatre managers ask the audience to ensure they have turned off their i-Things.

Despite the call for radio silence there is sometimes an idiot who thinks the rules don’t apply to them.


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Lyn Gardner of The Guardian says “I have seen members of the audience blatantly video the whole of both Dora the Explorer Live! and Jesus Christ Superstar, and ushers have watched them do it, entirely unperturbed.” Recording or photographing is strictly forbidden in live theatre.

Tony-award winning Patti LuPone can deal with this. During a performance at the Lincoln Center in July 2015 she saw a woman texting in the audience. Without breaking out of character she stepped off the stage and, as The New York Post reported, “ripped the cellphone out of the offender’s hand and walked off stage with it.”

Ms. LuPone told Playbill, “We work hard on stage to create a world that is being totally destroyed by a few, rude, self-absorbed and inconsiderate audience members who are controlled by their phones.”

Every member of the theatre community has given Ms. LuPone a metaphorical standing ovation. And, that brings us to another piece of theatre etiquette.

An Orchestra Fights Back against the Cellphone Menace

Applause Gone Wild

It isn’t necessary to give a standing ovation to every show.

In dramatic performances clapping is fine at the end of an act or at the curtain call; it’s also okay at the end of a solo in a musical. Otherwise, applause is a no-no although I’ve heard it in the middle of an act.

Then, there’s the “Standing O.” It used to be reserved for exceptional performances now it has become routine. J. Kelly Nestruck, theatre critic for The Globe and Mail, has written “You’ll find people standing and applauding after great performances and less-great ones and sometimes even after lousy ones.”

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The idea of the standing ovation has been devalued, much like when my little guys played soccer. Everybody got a trophy at the end of the season whether they put in any effort or not.

Caleb McMullen of Vancouver’s Mnemonic Theatre in Vancouver has put the following in programs for his productions: “To help us better understand your level of satisfaction with our presentation please: give us a standing ovation if you are incredibly satisfied, a seated applause if you are satisfied, and complete silence if you are rather indifferent … and (dare I say …) a vocal ‘boo’ if you were unsatisfied.”

Clean and Sober

I forget which play it was, but one performance I attended was disrupted by a man who appeared to have ingested something of a hallucinogenic nature. At the start of the second act, an actor came on stage and said “What are you doing here?” Whereupon a dishevelled looking hippie type rose up from behind a couch on stage and said “You can’t see me.”

The actor called the stage manager who escorted the fellow to the wings still proclaiming his invisibility.

Other times, I have been aware of people who have dined lustily and imbibed even better before arriving at the theatre. It isn’t long before these characters have nodded off, which would be okay if not for the foghorn blasts of snoring.

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The Theatre Charter

In the U.K. long-time theatre goer Richard Gresham has started a campaign to improve audience behaviour.

Mr. Gresham’s Theatre Charter covers the wretched cellphone disruptions and notes “You, and everyone around you will appreciate the following courtesies:

  • “To check the time on the ticket and arrive on time;
  • “To go to the loo prior to lights down;
  • “To remove all items you need from your bag prior to lights down, then leave the bag closed;
  • “To unwrap all sweets (candy) prior to lights down or during loud applause;
  • “To be quiet and still after lights down. This is not conversation time; and,
  • “To never leave mid-performance unless for medical or emergency reasons. If bored, leave discreetly at the interval.”

Yea verily Richard.

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Bonus Factoids

There’s one speaking-during-a-performance anecdote that is too delicious to be resisted. In the late 1920s, Jean Bart’s The Squall ran on Broadway for more than a year, although critic Robert Benchley was not impressed. At one point in the play a character says “Me Nubi. Nubi good girl. Nubi stay.” At this Benchley rose from his seat and left the theatre muttering “Me Benchley. Benchley bad boy. Benchley go.”

In Ancient Greece audiences showed their approval by stamping their feet rather than clapping their hands.

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Sources

“American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama 1914-1930.” Gerald Bordman, OUP USA, 1995.

“Should We put up with Disruptive Behaviour at the Theatre?” Lyn Gardner, The Guardian, May 21, 2013.

“Diva LuPone Snatches Phone from Texting Audience Member.” Beckie Strum, New York Post, July 9, 2015.

“Stood there, Applauded that: Does the Standing Ovation really Mean Anything any more?” J. Kelly Nestruck, Globe and Mail, February 19, 2013.

“The Theatre Charter.” Richard Gresham, 2014.


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    • Glenis Rix profile image

      GlenR 

      22 months ago from UK

      Best avoid the Globe Theatre then , where audience participation is acitively encouraged by some of the actors. I believe Italian opera buffs can be quite noisy too. My fervent wish is that sweets, crisps ,popcorn will be banned from anywhere that audiences gather.And that small children will be gagged and kept on a leash. But perhaps that's because I'm becoming an irascible old lady.

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