Theatre etiquette: a view from the box office: 'I've come close to refusing someone a ticket'
As part of our week focusing on the subject of theatre etiquette, deputy box office manager Alun Hood speaks to WhatsOnstage about how audience behaviour has changed over the years
Having worked in box offices for almost 20 years I've definitely seen changes in audience behaviour. On the one hand, thanks probably to reality TV casting shows and stage adaptations of familiar movies, going to a West End show has become more accessible to all - which is obviously a good thing. Unfortunately, it does seem that certain people see the theatres as extensions of their living rooms, or worse, the pub they have just staggered out of!
The use of mobile phones is an understandable bugbear with theatre staff, actors and regular playgoers alike and I definitely think the new practise of playing various electronic ringing tones over the sound system is more effective than having a verbal announcement, which the majority of audience members used to talk over, especially when attending as part of a group.
I worked on Saturday Night Fever at the Palladium back in the '90s and that show was a magnet for hen parties. Every Friday and Saturday night there would be at least one set of girls with fake veils, L-plates, inflatable dildos and bottles of alcopop. Drunken fights broke out during the show regularly at weekend performances, and usually while the show was actually going on. The management instigated bag searches in order to confiscate bottles but it didn't make that much difference as many of the patrons were already steaming drunk on arrival. From a box office point-of-view, all we could really do was point out to the Duty Manager the seating locations of potentially unruly audience members, although on Saturday nights it would sometimes feel as though you were talking about the entire rear stalls. I've got mates who worked at the Apollo Victoria when Night Fever was revived there a couple of years later and they had similar tales to tell.
Currently I'm at the Criterion on Close to You - Bacharach Reimagined and many of the patrons for this tend to be a bit older and usually a little better versed in theatre etiquette. Having said that, last week a group of glamorous ladies from up north (think Real Housewives Of Cheshire on a London bender) came in to buy tickets and appeared to have spent most of their afternoon alternating between posh shops and cocktail bars. They were very funny and just the right side of merry (although this was still a couple of hours before curtain-up) and one of them asked in all seriousness if it was okay to sing along ("cos I love a bit of Burt, me"). I responded that we have a very talented cast who are generally pretty good at doing it by themselves. She looked a little put out and groaned "oh God, like Jersey Boys" and proceeded to tell me how she and her chums had been at that show the preceding night and had been loudly shushed every time they joined in with the choruses. Oh what a night indeed.
We also had a recent matinee when a gentleman sitting in the front row of the dress produced his iPad as the lights were going down and positioned it directly on the front wall of the circle to record the show. He was genuinely mystified when requested by the ushers to stop.
I have never yet been in a position where I have had to actually refuse to sell a ticket to anybody but it has come pretty close. A sale is a sale admittedly but we also have the responsibility to other paying customers not to let in an individual who is going to mar their enjoyment of the show. Occasionally a noticeably smelly patron will buy a ticket at the window and then I have to check the plan to ensure that I can seat them in an area where their special aroma is going to cause least offence to and/or comment from other audience members. Boxes are especially useful for this on busy performances!
Theatre is a communal experience and while it is a wonderful thing to see and hear people responding to what they're watching that shouldn't be at the expense of other patrons' ability to concentrate on and enjoy the performance.
Of course one can be hoisted by one's own petard, such as the time when I took a non-theatregoing friend to see Evita on the same day that she was leaving a long standing job in the city. She turned up completely smashed, insisted on taking wine in with her ("it'll help me stay awake") and alternately snored, chatted and bopped throughout act one. When Elena Roger came on in the famous 'white dress' to sing "Don't Cry For Me Argentina", my chum bellowed "that's just the same as my wedding dress", burst into tears and then sobbed loudly for the entire number. I wanted to hurl her off the front of the Dress Circle. We are still friends but I haven't been to the theatre with her since.