Andrew Snowdon

How to Act in the Audience

In Uncategorized on Wednesday 5 January 2011 at 7:55

. . .The audience was generally relaxed and in a gay mood; people smoked, ate oranges, and nuts during the performance. They cracked the nuts between their teeth and sometimes annoyed the actors and other members of the audience with the sound.

Although the enemies of the theater claimed that audiences were unruly and given to fighting and rioting, unbiased observers of the time speak only of the excellent behavior and rapt attention of the spectators, who laughed, applauded, and wept when their emotions were stirred, hissed or booed when they were displeased, but most of the time listened in interested silence.

—Randolph Goodman, Drama on Stage, 1961 (of the Elizabethan-era audience)

As the theatre season is getting back into full swing, I am reminded of a promise I have so far failed to keep. During nearly every intermission of any performance I’ve attended over the past year, I have vowed on Twitter to write a post on theatre etiquette. The reason, unfortunately, is that it seems to be so neglected.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh, and it’s one or two (or five) miscreants that are ruining it for the rest of us. However, I have noticed even people who really ought to know better doing things—small things, but disruptive things—that Ought Not To Be Done.

How to behave in the theatre is basic. We are decades past the days when wraps, opera glasses, and appropriate tips for the ushers were part of the equation.

Do not make noise. If you tend to fidget, fidget before the performance and get a handle on what’s going to make the seat make noise—so that you don’t. Avoid coughing and sneezing (and cover your face as much as possible if you must—a pillow that fits over your face but does not block the row behind would be ideal). Please do not pass gas, even if you think you can do so quietly. Do not unwrap candies during the performance. Do not chew gum. Do not chew anything. Do not touch the water bottle (that you shouldn’t have with you anyway); it crinkles. Do not play with the program, rolling, unrolling, and riffling it. If you are a reviewer or a student and must have a notebook out, write silently, don’t turn pages, and don’t draw attention to the fact. Do not talk.

The same structural principles that permit every person in the audience to hear the actors on the stage mean that every noise in the audience can be heard on the stage as well.

NAC English Theatre Artistic Director Peter Hinton says it so nicely, but I cannot bring myself to: Turn off your cellphone, pager, or anything else that goes beep or lights up. Off. All the way off. If it rings audibly, everyone will hate you (if you fail to turn it off during the intermission and it rings again during the second act—this actually happened—you are marked for life*). If it is on vibrate, it is still audible (quite audible if it’s in your purse on the floor, as a matter of fact). If it is on “silent”, even then, the signal of an incoming call, text message, or notification can in some cases induce a signal in the sound system which everyone will hear. Besides this, for some models of BlackBerry the scrolling and typing noises are very distracting. And the iPhone is practically a flashlight. The only way to be sure is to turn your phone or other device completely off. If you are someone who may need to be reached at a moment’s notice (expectant father, specialized surgeon, angel, &c.), you may be able to leave your device with the house and they will send an usher for you if the sky falls. Inquire. For the rest of us, if I can turn my phone completely off for the duration of a performance, so can you.

If your ticket was free or discounted (either because you bought it at the last minute, or have a subscription), remember that at least some of the audience paid full price. In fact, assume that everyone else paid full price. Pretend that you paid full price.

Dressing up for the theatre is recommended, within your means. Wash. Do not wear scents. Odours permeate a theatre and distract from the performance. Again, do not pass gas.

Treat the theatre, the actors, and the audience with the respect they deserve.


* If you actually answer it, you should just burst into flames. That ought to be a law of physics.

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