Theatre etiquette: this week we're considering the issues from different angles
Matt Trueman on the tricky subject of theatre etiquette and why it needs to be approached with nuance
Last week, I was very nearly that guy. Sat in the Stadsschouwburg theatre in Amsterdam – in the middle of a row, of course – the Indonesian squid curry I'd had for dinner started making its presence known. I will spare you the details, but for ten minutes in the middle of The Glass Menagerie, I sat stewing in my own sweat, panicking mildly and swallowing back my saliva. The night before, my phone had gone off mid-show as well. I can't decide which would have been more shameful. I'm basically a one-man drop in the standard of Amsterdam audiences: the scourge of Dutch theatre.
Theatre etiquette is so strongly felt that stepping outside of it, whether by forgetfulness or frozen squid, sets one's shame reflex a-go-go. And God knows, we uptight Brits do etiquette better than anyone. Our society – with its dress codes, cutlery management and class system, not to mention our unrivalled ability to glower, scowl and tut – is rife with unwritten codes of conduct and the theatre has more than most. Heaven help the man with a bag of boiled sweets, a hacking cough and a tendency to sing along to Andrew Lloyd Webber songs.
That's why we at WhatsOnstage ran a survey on the subject last month and a whopping3,300 took the time to write down your thoughts. It's clearly a subject that people hold dear, but it's also one full of grey areas and clashes. One in five of you, for example, think singing along is acceptable, while less than half of you are OK with snacking on crisps and sweets. Almost three quarters of you think audiences are generally well behaved, yet 85 per cent believe that standards have dropped.
Here's the dilemma: etiquette is, by its very nature, exclusive. Any code of conduct, especially those that remain unwritten, is a barrier to access. It makes newcomers feel like uninitiated outsiders. Put it this way: we want a theatre for everyone – just so long as they know how to behave. What's more, normal theatre etiquette is dictated by a certain class and culture. Others might find those expectations uncomfortable.
At the same time, however, poor etiquette is intrusive. Theatre being a communal art-form, one person's behaviour can impede on everyone else's experience. There's a reason that etiquette and expectations exist in theatre: we all have a role to play in a show's success.
All this plays in the way we tend to talk about theatre etiquette. Understandably, the subject only crops up when there's been some breach or other: when someone's been kicked out for karaoke or caught bonking in the balcony. We flag up the very worst offences – the pukers, the pissheads and the teens charging their iPhones onstage – but make no mention of the majority behaving perfectly.
The moment we try to codify audience etiquette into absolute rules, we risk coming across as patronising and stuffy. Take the online Theatre Charter campaign, which addresses very valid concerns, but, by dictating best practice on the way we use the toilets pre-show, it oversteps the mark and trips into pettiness.
Theatre etiquette is an important issue, but it needs nuance if we're to get anywhere. That's why, for the next week, we're going to be considering etiquette from a number of different angles. We've asked a whole load of people for their perspective on audience behaviour: from the actors onstage to the ushers standing by, from theatre owners with bar sales and soft furnishings to protect over to hen parties and stag dos that just want to have fun. Most importantly, though, we want to hear from you – the audience. What does theatre etiquette look like in the 21st Century? Is it time for a change in attitudes or should we get stricter? What do you reckon?