Theatre etiquette: An actor's perspective

As part of our week focusing on theatre etiquette, Rudi Dharmalingam, Jon Jon Briones, Tanya Moodie and more share their stories and opinions on what it’s like to have a disruptive audience

Whenever the topic of audience behaviour arises, nine times out of ten the discussion is about the effect bad behaviour has on fellow audience members. But what about those on stage? How are they affected? We asked a few actors to get their view on the matter.

Rebecca Humphries

Credits include: Pomona (Orange Tree & West End), Temple (Donmar Warehouse)

Within the past fortnight I have come up against:

• A phone that vibrated for an entire eight minute scene
• An audible yawn in what was a very quiet, very sensitive moment for my fellow actor
• A peal of laughter from a group while someone was crying onstage
• A horrendous coughing fit from someone who clearly was not well enough to have left their bed
• A plastic bag being rustled so much it caused half the audience to turn and witness one man produce a whole rotisserie chicken from it. Which he then slowly and audibly consumed.

The tragedy is that 95 per cent of audiences ARE respectful, are very kind, enjoy the theatre and appreciate that it can be hard for us. We love and adore those people, they are what's keeping theatre alive. There is nothing better than leaving the stage after a show and going 'what a fantastic audience!' The feeling is unparalleled. But, as is human nature, it is the negatives that you focus on and that can make it difficult.

Jon Jon Briones

Credits include: Miss Saigon (West End & World Tour)

When you're performing and you're the only one on stage, you don't really see the audience but you feel them and you hear that they're reacting, you've taken them to a different world and they believe it so you know there is a connection between you and the audience and that connection fuels you to drive the scene even harder.

But then you see a face or two light up and suddenly there is a disconnect, suddenly you're trying to deal with emotions inside; anger, frustration, self doubt. You're thinking of what to do; stop and ask them to turn it off, jump off the stage and yank it out of their hands. But with musicals, especially a sung through musical, that's impossible. So, you plow through and just stare at the luminous face while singing "If You Wanna Die in Bed" hoping they'd notice and turn it off. It's only two and a half hours with a break in between but if you really have to, take it outside.

Catherine Steadman

Credits include: Oppenheimer (RSC & West End), That Face (Royal Court & West End)

I don't tend to get too distracted by audience noise but I did have a moment during Oppenheimer at the Vaudeville. My character Jean was giving an impassioned speech to Oppenheimer about why she is so worried about the escalating tensions in Poland and her fears about the rise of fascism in Europe. The line came where I say 'I feel as though I want to sneeze' and as soon as I'd uttered the word 'sneeze' a man in the front row did the most epic sneeze I've ever heard. It took everything I had not to say 'bless you'. John [Heffernan] could tell that I was barely holding it together and I somehow managed to finish the scene without laughing. It was brilliant.

Tanya Moodie

Credits include: King John (The Globe), Fences (West End)

When we were doing Fences, I was listening from backstage to Lenny Henry and Colin McFarlane start the first scene of the show. A few seconds in, Lenny had to stop acting to kindly ask a member of the audience to refrain from listening to the cricket on a portable radio. The audience member in question pretended to turn it off, so Lenny had to stop a second time and say he could still hear it. When he finally capitulated, they had to start the scene all over again. Our company hypothesis was that the man had most likely been dragged to the theatre against his will by his wife and he just would rather have been at home watching the cricket. Somehow he had a brainwave that he could do both at the same time!

As a fellow audience member, there once was a couple beside who spent the duration of the show heavy petting, which was disturbing considering the show we were watching was The Nether, which is about a paedophile ring. The most inappropriate setting in which to make out.

Rudi Dharmalingam

Credits include: Hamlet (Barbican), The Oresteia (Almeida)

The overt usage of cameras during the first few weeks of Hamlet was of course widely documented. In truth it was massively distracting and I hope I never have to see that again whilst performing.

Also if you have a bad cough and you decide to go and see a show, please keep a bottle of water with you and if it gets uncontrollable vacate the theatre so as to not distract us and your fellow audience members. Thanks!

This week, WhatsOnStage will be featuring a series of interviews and blogs with people involved in the theatre industry about their opinions on our survey and theatre etiquette in general. Keep up to date with the conversation by following @whatsonstage and #theatreetiquette and visiting this link.