The Lost Art Of Theatre Etiquette

I’ve always been a stickler for theatre etiquette and I admit sometimes I have to relax and let go with this one. Somewhere in my youth, someone told me the “rights” and “wrongs” of how to behave as an audience member in the theatre.

So from day one of my drama teaching career, I have always instilled those values in my students when we go to the theatre. I make no apologies or excuses for it and in the hundreds of theatre shows I have taken students to over the years, I have probably only been embarrassed by my students’ behaviour a couple of times.

For me, it’s all about respect. Let’s face it, buying a ticket to the theatre these days isn’t cheap. You can get discounts when you search the Broadway Shows guide at TheaterMania.com though. People have paid good money to sit in the theatre and they deserve the right to enjoy the show without interruptions.

To this end, I have always avoided “student matinees” and wherever possible I go to the theatre with my students at night. I usually find the behaviour of adults in the audience something my own students can learn from. Plus, it’s great to see regular adult theatre-goers pleasantly surprised at the end of a show by the good behaviour of students around them.

Apart from not putting your feet on seats, chewing gum, talking during the show, having your mobile phone on or listening to your iPod, my biggest beef is eating during a theatre show. I have no problem with people munching quietly away, but I do have issues with their food wrappers!

So, why oh why (in Australia at least) do we allow food and drinks to be taken into the theatre for the blockbuster stage musicals like Wicked, Jersey Boys and the like? What sort of message are we sending to the general public about proper theatre etiquette when we allow potato crisp wrappers, ice cream wrappers and lolly/candy wrappers to be the cause of constant noise in the audience?

I understand the big stage musicals are not always aimed at the astute theatre-goer. It’s theatre for the masses and along with that comes many people who have never been to a theatre show before. I’m sure this is something we all encourage in the theatre industry worldwide, but these are the very people we should be sending the right message to about theatre etiquette, surely?

My experience of Billy Elliot was ruined last year by the noise of food wrappers and people in the audience talking all around me. My experience of a Cats revival was also ruined a few weeks ago by a 6 year-old girl jumping up and down in front of me and wriggling in her seat most of the show (umm … perhaps going to a matinee performance may have been a better idea for someone so young attending a 3-hour show). As soon as I blocked this out, her parents leaned over to each other and talked every two minutes. But that was nothing compared to the man behind me who decided the back of my seat needed a good kicking every time he changed crossing his legs!

Adding weight to my complaint is that most of these problems occur at shows we are asked to pay twice the price for. The average international musical here in Melbourne is around A$120, but you can easily pay A$160 for the good seats in the stalls. Why would I want to pay this sort of price for my theatre experience to be ruined by those around me talking through the show and making noise with their food wrappers? And why do we allow food and beverages into the auditoriums of large-scale musicals, while it is banned from regular mainstream theatre shows and venues, elsewhere?

The first rule I give all my Drama students attending the theatre for the first time, no matter what their age, is that the theatre is not the cinema. For starters, it is rarely as loud as the movies and is often deadly quiet in parts, demanding absolute silence in the audience. We don’t eat, don’t talk, don’t put our feet on seats in front of us and don’t play on our mobile phones during a theatre show. Put simply, we don’t distract those around us in the audience while watching a theatre performance. If the show is intimate, talking members of the audience can also distract the actors on stage. Unlike the movies that are cut up on an editing board and distributed on a reel to cinemas across the world, the theatre is a living art and demands a higher respect from those watching it.

Someone needs to remind the promoters and venue managers hosting blockbuster international stage musicals that when we pay $120+ for a ticket, we don’t expect food in the auditorium, the noise that goes with it or audience members talking throughout the show. Here’s a thought – how about a few points explaining proper theatre etiquette on the website at time of purchase and inside the envelope accompanying theatre tickets that get sent out in the mail? Most theatre companies have been doing this for some years in Melbourne for teachers to prepare their students for theatre shows (and I’m sure there are many examples in other cities and countries as well), but the general adult public needs this information, too.

I can’t recall whether food and beverages are allowed into the auditorium for Broadway shows? I’d love to know from anyone out there reading this post.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m just an old hag whinging about this topic. But then again, if we don’t protest, nothing is going to change for the better in the future.

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9 Responses

  1. I thought you or your readers might be interested in some work we’ve been doing about audience views on strategies to stop mobile phone use and on the rather surprising potential side effects. If you are interested have a look at https://www.theatrebreaks.co.uk/theatre-news-mobile-phones-announcements/ If you think your website visitors would be interested, then it woud be great if you could tell them about the article or maybe we could think about some sort of interaction around the subject. What do you think?

  2. Liu Yan says:

    I’m doing research on the translation of theater etiquette in China and English-speaking countries and surfing on the web to find information about it. A link in Google directs me to your post. Can’t agree with you more.
    The question is adults are not aware of it, but they ignore it.
    There are various theater etiquette in China.
    Enclosed is “Tips for theater goers” of Shanghai Theater. Like to share with you.

    上海大剧院
    观剧小贴士
    遵守秩序
    节目开演后,请勿任意更换座位、离席或交谈。演出进行中应保持肃静,不要翻弄塑料袋之类的物品,不要大声咳嗽。演出场所禁止使用手机等有声响的物件。
    鼓掌
    欣赏音乐类演出时,乐章与乐章之间不要鼓掌,待演出结束时再报以掌声。
    着装
    走进剧场观赏演出,着装需整洁、整齐,以正装出席为宜。
    摄影
    演出中未经允许,禁止摄影、摄像、录音等。

    Theatre Etiquette
    Kindly take note of the following to ensure a pleasant theatre experience for everyone:
    1. Audiences entering the theatre will need to display their valid performance ticket. Please retain your ticket till the end of the performance.
    2. Please enter the theatre in an orderly manner and take your seat according to the seat number indicated on your ticket. Also, kindly help to maintain a quiet theatre environment for everyone. Latecomers will only be allowed entry at suitable intervals. Please listen to the arrangements of the ushers.
    3. Audiences will need to be dressed appropriately for the performance.
    4. Please do not bring any flammable or combustible items into the theatre.
    5. Please do not carry any sugared drinks or coffee into the theatre. Eating is strictly prohibited in the theatre.
    6. Please take note that photography and videography are not allowed during the performance and flash is strictly prohibited.
    7. Please deposit your bulky items and plastic bags in the cloakroom. For studio theatre audiences, please deposit the relevant items in the lockers provided outside the studio theatre.
    8. Please ensure that children are not left unattended during the performance, to ensure that they do not roam around or make noise and affect other patrons viewing the performance.

    If you have any questions or suggestions on how we can better improve our service, please speak to our ushers in uniform.
    Shanghai Grand Theatre endeavors to provide a professional, personal and thoughtful service to all of you.

    • Thanks for your comments Liu and for posting theatre etiquette tips from China’s Shanghai Grand Theatre. Its great to see an increasing number of venues around the world communicating appropriate behaviour to theatre-goers on their websites.

  3. Annie says:

    Is anyone aware of a short skit, musical or play that incorporates teaching theatre etiquette to children. We would like to find one for our Green Shows. We are hearing continuously how children are growing up without learning theatre etiquette and we want to find a fun way to teach it to them through our productions.

  4. Karen says:

    I can only agree with you Justin, but must add my own rule of “Please be at the theatre on time!” I have recently returned from New York and was absolutely amazed at how so many people arrived well after the performances had begun. My son had a funny experience once at the theatre he was ushering at…a group of young people had clearly never attended live theatre before and wanted to move from the seats they’d been issued. In most cinemas you can sit anywhere, and they thought that was the case at live theatre too. He put them back in their places (literally) very quickly. 🙂 With the eating/lolly wrapper problems, many theatres are making a bit of a joke about it now. Along with the “turn off the phone” message some are also adding that “now would be a great time to unwrap your rattly lollies”.

  5. Justin Cash says:

    Thanks Nina. A good little article on the do’s and dont’s for any member of a theatre audience. I love the line about the average Broadway seat makes Economy class on a commercial airliner look luxurious. So true!

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