Theatre etiquette: what a week

From angry audience members, to unhappy ushers, our week focusing on theatre etiquette provoked some challenging, interesting and heated debate

People quite clearly wanted to talk about theatre etiquette
People quite clearly wanted to talk about theatre etiquette
(© © Alyson Hurt/flickr)
For the last seven days, WhatsOnStage has been leading a conversation – at times a very loud conversation – about theatre etiquette. The decision to focus on the subject came following the results of our survey, to which an astonishing 3,300 of you responded. There were horror stories: reports of an audience member proffering up a sonic screwdriver to Arthur Darvill while he was performing at Shakespeare’s Globe; a couple having sex in the back of the stalls; nappy changes on the floor during a musical; fish and chip munching and loud breaking wind. There was a whole lot more on general lairy drunkenness.

But it wasn’t just the awful first person tales that prompted #theatreetiquette week. It was also the fact that according to the survey, 85.5 per cent of you think audience behaviour has declined over recent years. Then there’s the fact that 59 per cent of respondees didn’t think venues or theatre owners did enough to police audience behaviour.

So we commissioned a series of blogs from members of the public, front-of-house staff, theatre charities, artistic directors, theatre managers and more on what they thought about theatre etiquette. We asked you all to respond too. And you did. The replies were heartening, alarming and interesting in equal measure. The reach across Facebook and Twitter was massive. People quite clearly wanted to talk.

Susie McKenna, artistic director of Hackney Empire, declared there was nothing worse than an unresponsive audience. Dr Penelope Woods wrote an intruiguing piece about the way audiences in different countries respond to the Globe to Globe Hamlet: in Papua New Guinea they found the onstage deaths hilarious. Our critics weighed in, too. With Matt Trueman giving us an example of when he was that audience member, while Michael Coveney pointed out how hushed audiences only started to be trendy with the Victorians.

Actors also gave their two-pennies-worth. Dominic West declared ‘I think etiquette is a terrible thing to have in the theatre’, while others voiced their unhappiness at audience distractions. ‘… 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,’ said Miss Saigon actor Jon Jon Briones. An usher spoke to us anonymously to explain how little they are supported by the venues, while a theatre manager said they shouldn’t have to tell people what to do: ‘I think it's for us to adjust and deal with the audience, but I don't think it's for us to dictate to people.’

Actors on theatre etiquette

Theatre etiquette: An actor's perspective

'I think etiquette is a terrible thing to have in the theatre' – Dominic West

Posted by WhatsOnStage on Friday, November 27, 2015

On Facebook, in response to our piece by an usher, Nick Lambert commented: "I feel very strongly that theatres should not be selling noisy sweets and snacks and people should not be allowed to take their alcoholic drinks (or any drinks for that matter) into the auditorium. Instead of Front of House staff, some shows need bouncers!" Throwing in another angle, Jenny Squires-Startup pointed out that, although she believes bad theatre etiquette is ‘not acceptable’, as a full-time carer it’s hard for her to switch her phone off entirely.

Our post from an angry audience member alone has so far reached almost 135,000 people on Facebook. Among the many comments Denis Beggs said: "All electronic devices should be banned from theatres. Make it a condition when buying a ticket. If you turn up at the venue with a phone, iPad, camera etc, it will be taken away. I went to all my London shows with just my wallet. I survived." That may seem a little extreme, but it was something a lot of people agreed with.

Is it possible to conclude when faced with such a diverse number of viewpoints and such a robust amount of reasoning? In my opinion, the strongest points made were to do with the way we care about our fellow audience members. "We are all connected to our surrounding and/or others. It would be nice if some people took that on board a little more," said our anonymous angry audience member. I think this might be the key.

The theatre landscape has changed over recent years, I'm not sure that's something anyone could deny. The rising trend for celebrity casting, juke box musicals and the pressure on theatres to make money on confectionery and drinks has risen. But maybe we should all – venues, audiences, actors and managers – take a step back and think about the best way forward. No one wants their night at the theatre ruined, and I think it's up to everyone to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Read WhatsOnStage's series of interviews and blogs on theatre etiquette here.