28 Feb 2023

Etiquette at the theatre

There have been many reports in recent weeks about a rise in rowdy behaviour in British theatres. Accounts range from intrusive use of mobile phones and loudly rustling sweet papers to drunkenness, singing along, abusive behaviour and outbreaks of fighting in the stalls.

There is a consensus that audience behaviour has deteriorated since the pandemic lockdowns, and undoubtedly the return to communal experiences has engendered a febrile sense of joy and excitement, which can get out of hand.

What should we expect from a theatre experience? In Shakespeare’s times audiences were loud and bawdy, uninhibited about vocally expressing disgust or appreciation. It was only in the mid-19th century that Britain’s notoriously riotous theatres began to be subject to regulation, and a wealthier and more demanding audience began to impose more recognisable standards of audience behaviour, with the emphasis on quiet attentiveness and decorum.

While audiences have never been completely controllable and from time to time there have been outbreaks of riotous and anti-social behaviour, the tendency has been to observe generally recognised theatre etiquette: sit quietly, no noisy eating or drinking, respect your neighbour’s space, reserve commentary on the play for the interval.

The first chink in this painstakingly constructed carapace of good behaviour was the arrival of the mobile phone. Ringtones interrupted performances, audience members texted or scrolled mid-play, creating distracting pools of light in the darkness of the auditorium, people used their phones to take photographs during the performance. Theatres reacted by broadcasting warnings and politely requesting the audience to switch off their phones – inevitably some diehards did not always comply.

But these transgressions seem comparatively minor when compared to some of the more egregious recent examples of bad behaviour. In some performances the whole notion of audiences gathering together to experience what the late director Peter Brook called the “good” kind of silence “when everyone is so keyed to the same point that there is this extraordinary life” seems to have evaporated. It would, however, be senselessly doctrinaire to expect the level of rapt and silent attention to a joyous jukebox musical that is demanded of a Shakespeare tragedy. As with all manners, context is crucial and behaving well is grounded in a willingness to take note of the prevailing ambience and to respect it.

Audiences may be understandably somewhat confused by the ways in which theatres choose to market their productions, in particular musicals. If they are told there will be “dancing in the aisles”, then it is not unreasonable to expect an uproarious party atmosphere. Reining in some of these more extravagant claims might go some way towards managing audiences’ expectations and behaviour, and printing warnings about behaviour (“No singing along, stay seated throughout the performance etc”) on ticket confirmations or in the programme might also be helpful.

Theatres are obviously reliant on sales of alcohol in their bars before the performance and during the interval, but allowing their customers to bring alcohol into the auditorium may be a step too far. It sends signals that the show is going to be the “best party in town” (another marketing claim) and inevitably can lead to disinhibition. Similarly, selling food in the theatre bar that is encased in noisy wrappers is inviting problems; when people in neighbouring seats are distracted by loud rustling at moments of high drama, they will be understandably irritated and disputes between audience members may break out.

The worst examples of recent bad behaviour concern the abuse of ushers and theatre staff. They may find themselves in situations where they are obliged to police audience behaviour and are subjected to unwarranted aggression. If you are called out by a fellow audience member or an usher because of your behaviour, then you must acknowledge that you have transgressed the communal codes of conduct, apologise graciously and move on. You may feel aggrieved or resentful, but you must accept that, in a society where people are generally tolerant and unwilling to complain, you have genuinely caused offence.

Theatre tickets are expensive, and it is understandable that all theatregoers feel that they have made an investment that entitles them to a great night out, whatever their definition of this may be. But the joy of theatre is all about the delight of shared experience, and while much of the time this is wholly positive, there will be occasions when compromises and concessions must be made.


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