Theatre Etiquette

top-tenplaysI am beginning my fifteenth  year as a theatre critic and my 54th year as a theatre patron. I am more aware of theatre etiquette than in past years. Perhaps because both theatre companies and theatre patrons have changed their habits—and not for the better, that I felt compelled to write this article. I learned to be most observant since I’m at theatre both to enjoy the show and report on it, so peculiar behavior and habits jump out at me. Let me start by observing that things have changed over the years. People now don’t dress up to go to theatre. Theatre is now much more of a casual event rather than a main entertainment as it was in years past.  Seeing a live stage show is a communal experience for everyone—audience members and performers. This more casual atmosphere has several new trends associated with it.

First, more people than ever are arriving late for shows and more theatres are seating them long after the show has started violation my Rule One:

“Thou shall not arrive late for a show—and—thou shall not seat anyone after the curtain rises until the intermission” as the Chicago Lyric Opera does. (Exception: possibly a theatre venue could seat late comers in the last few rows, thereby not disrupting anyone’s enjoyment the show.) Theatre patrons should check the show’s starting time and traffic conditions before departing.

Second, the theatre venues should open the theatres sooner so everyone can be seated well BEFORE show time. Starting late is a NOT an option—it is rude to all who have arrived on time. Venues need not wait until a half hour before the show is to start to open the theatre when it takes more time to seat everyone, thereby guaranteeing a late start.  Having patrons standing in line like a herd of cattle is rude and unnecessary—just open the lobby and the theatre sooner and let the patrons wait in their seats instead of standing in a lobby.

For smaller storefront theatres: NEVER have a minimum number of audience members to mount a performance. If a critic or a member of the media is at your theatre—be respectful of their time and interest in your production—and do the show even if they are the only one in the audience. Let your patrons know—by phone or email–if there is a possibility of a cancellation. Respect people’s time—always.

Intermissions: most venues’ intermissions are too long—10 minutes or 15 minutes means just that. I have been to shows where all the audience members have arrived back in their seats yet the show didn’t start for 5 –8 minutes—so much for the timed intermission. Again—respect our time.

By far the general rudeness of theatre audiences has grown over the years. Theatre patrons must realize that they are not in their homes watching TV—they are in a theatre sharing a live theatrical experience with others. Common etiquette dictates the following:
Be careful getting seated—check your tickets to make sure you’re in the proper seat, and be careful not to step onto the feet of the person you’re moving past, and be care not to hit the person seated in the row in front of you with your backpack, coat or handbag. At least 2-3 times per week, I get hit in the head with a careless bag or coat by a clueless theatre patron.

Turn off your pagers and/or cell phones BEFORE the show starts. And NO TEXT MESSAGING during the show. And DO NOT CHECK your VOICE MESSAGES and/or TEXT MESSAGES during the show. Maybe we need to do what some London theatre have started doing—making everyone check-in their cell phones upon entering the theatre. Remember, you are at the theatre with others who don’t want to hear your cell phone conversations—we are at theatre to enjoy the experience of seeing a live stage performance—not to overhear your phone calls. TEXT MESSAGING is becoming a curse—it distracts others and it could interfere with sound and lighting cues. NO TEXT MESSAGES in the theatre. Period.

Talking and commenting on the show is still heard too much. Remember, everyone including the actors can hear you—it is rude and unnecessary. Don’t talk during blackouts—that is rude. Also—teach your children to not talk during the show and, of course, set a good example for them. Leave the talking—and singing to the performers. Remember, we didn’t come to hear you hum or sing the tunes—save that for the shower. And—no photos and no recording of the shows—I have seen folks using their cell phones to record a show. Don’t do it—you can be arrested.

Eating and drinking during the show makes noise—as does opening candy—Don’t Do that—especially at points of high drama in a show! Never slurp you drink—theatre venues should bar drinks in the theatre—thank God many do. The theatre is not a picnic.

Leaving the theatre during the show–is becoming a problem. Go to the washroom BEFORE the show starts—and before you get seated. It is rude to climb over others just after you sit down—then during the show and when you return—especially during the show. Don’t drink liquids before the show if you have a weak bladder.

During the intermission pick up you bags, etc to clear the isle so everyone can easily exit. Of course, return before the second act starts and shut off those cell phones. If we all use simple common sense and have some empathy for our fellow theatre patron, we all enjoy the experience of live stage shows. If we realize that must be aware of others at the theatre—we’ll usually be courteous. Remember, we are all at the show together—so we need to make the best of it.

In the last few years there is a disturbing trend that finds many theatre patrons needing to bring drinks into the theatre with the blessing (and encourage of theatre venues who desire to make more money). So, please be careful not to spill that drink of yours onto others as has happened to me.

Go See A Play This Week!

Tom Williams