[Broadway Ad Network]

[Broadway Ad Network]

A Theatre Etiquette Refresher by Matthew Murray

  • mmurrayFace.jpgI had the distinct displeasure last night to sit next to a woman at a show who behaved as though she had never been in a theater before. My time with her got off to a bad start when she barged into the seat adjacent to mine without reading her ticket and then, after seeing she was in the wrong place, whining about staying because she'd have to climb over too many people to get to where she was supposed to be. Then, while she was getting herself adjusted before the show, she kept hitting me with the straps of her gigantic red shoulder bag. Worse yet, after the (110-minute, intermissionless) show began, she pulled out, unzipped, rezipped, and then stowed that bag again on three separate occasions to (1) look at her cell phone, apparently because she had received a text message; (2) pull out a pack of gum, which she then tore into and chomped away at for the remainder of the show; and (3) put away her jacket because the theater was just too darn air conditioned. (All of this happened, by the way, four rows from the stage—and this was an unamplified play in a small Off-Broadway theater, not a loud musical in a cavernous house.) When I whispered to her that her behavior was not appropriate for the theater and to please stop, she glared and then loudly sniped at me as though I was trampling on her civil rights.

    To her and to all similarly self-absorbed would-be theatregoers, I say this: Your rights are not the issue when you go to the theater. You are there to see a bunch of talented people ply their craft, and hopefully learn something about the world or at least your feelings toward it. And because theatre is live, everything you do has a distinct impact on both the people around you and the people onstage. Your responsibility is to sit down, shut up, and do everything you can to not make the time worse for everyone else. This doesn't mean you can't laugh, you can't cry, you can't applaud, or you can't cheer. But it means that when you disturb people merely because you think you're entitled to do so, you relinquish any claim you have to be treated as a human being worthy of respect. If you ruin the theatre for me and the people around me, I don't give a damn about your feelings. And neither should anyone else.

    So, despite the fact that this is 2011, and none of this should be necessary (especially since I first wrote a version of this two years ago, which threatened to bring down the wrath of Patti LuPone on transgressers), I feel obliged to run through a series of rules so basic that even the troglodytic harridan I sat next to last night should be able to understand them. If you follow these, you'll find that not only do other people have a better time at the theatre, you will too—because you're contributing to a positive atmosphere, rather than one of enmity and annoyance.

    If you want to make the theatre world a better place, all you have to do is remember this, the Golden Rule of Theatre Etiquette: Your theatre experience is not just about you.

    But, if you need (or would like) this concept broken down still further, here is a more detailed look at exactly what you should (and shouldn't) do when you're seeing a show.

    1. No talking. Do not talk. Do not talk. Do not talk. To start with, it's inconsiderate to the person you're talking to, who may prefer his concentration not be interrupted. But it's hardly better for the people seated around you, are either aware of what you're saying or at least that you're saying something. No matter how unobtrusive you think you're being, you are actually being too loud—you're never anywhere near as quiet as you think you are. If some emergency requires you to notify your companion that you're leaving, say something quickly and then make your exit as quickly as possible. There is never a reason to converse with your companion or make snarky comments about what you're seeing, no matter how much you may want to. Suppress the impulse. If you can't do this, then just go home—you obviously don't want to be in the theater anyway, and you're just making things worse for the people who do. The only exception to this is if you have to say something to someone who is violating one of the other rules. But if you have to do that, do it as quickly and as quietly as you can—preferably just a firm "Shh!" or "Would you please turn that off?" Restoring order is the sole good excuse for talking at a show—but even then, don't overdo it.

    2. Turn everything off. If you are going to a show, the ideal place for your cell phone is at home or, if you drove to the theater, in your glove compartment. If you have it with you, turn it off before you enter the theater. If you simply must use your phone at intermission, to listen to voice mail or check on the kids, leave the theater, make your call, turn your phone off, and then come back in. A ringing or buzzing phone, or the luminescent display when you're dashing off just a quick text, ruins the evening for everyone—even if you turn it off immediately. If you think no one can see or hear what you're doing, you're wrong. Plain and simple: If you can't be without your iPhone, BlackBerry, or plain-old cell phone for two hours, you shouldn't be going to the theater. The same is true of hearing aids for those use infrared listening devices: You are instructed to turn off the hearing aids for a reason. Trust that the person with the technology knows it better than you do, and you'll avoid problems. (Related to this: If you're using these, the rest of the world does not get so loud that you're forced to shout. If you think it does, see rule number one, above.)

    3. No pictures. Do not take pictures—flash or otherwise, still or video. There are rules, laws, and hefty fines governing these things, but the practice is also disruptive for the other people around you, and potentially distracting or even dangerous for those onstage. (Those lights on cameras and camcorders are easily seen in a dark theater.) Oh, and by the way, chances are that whatever you take is going to turn out terrible anyway, noisy and useless--theaters are lit for shows, not for cameras. Save yourself the future heartbreak and keep yours out of sight.

    4. Keep your zippers zipped. Whether it's your coat, your bag, or anything else (I'd really prefer to not get into additional specifics here), zippers make noise—and, again, more than you think. If you bring a bag with you to the theater, you do not need to get into it for any reason during the show—leave it under your seat. If you're not sure how warm or cool you'll be, leave your coat on unzipped so you can take it off quietly if the need arises.

    5. Come on time. A colleague of mine put it extremely well once: "If you can get to the airport an hour ahead of time for a flight, why can't you get to a theater 10 minutes before a play starts?" Good question. Even if you come in "only" a few minutes after the show starts, you're still being insensitive to the audience members who got there on time and want to see (and hear) what's going on—to say nothing of the performers, who can always tell when this is happening (particularly in a small house, but even in bigger Broadway theaters). Check the time on your tickets or on the ticketing website to make sure you know when the curtain goes up, then plan to be there 10-15 minutes prior to that. Eat quickly if you have to, or leave work a few minutes early. From a practical standpoint, getting to a show on time also means you see everything—and that you're not wasting your money, or missing out on some vital information or entertainment that could make the difference between a good evening and an unforgettable one. Granted, this problem could be solved if, like airplanes, theaters locked down tight precisely at curtain time and let no one in. But since that's not going to happen, please take responsibility for yourself.

    6. Stay in your seat. Just because that choice seat three rows away is empty when the show starts doesn't mean no one will come and sit in it—someone almost always will. Likewise, unless it's a dire emergency, don't get up and leave during the show. Unless you're sitting on the aisle, it's impossible to inconvenience only one person when you move around for any reason, so wait until intermission or the end of the play.

    7. Don't eat, drink, or chew gum. I've got news for you: Even if you think you're exercising ninja-like care, everyone will hear you open that cellophane-wrapped candy, extract two Tic Tacs from that container, swig from that plastic water bottle, or smack that Trident. These things may not sound so bad on the street or at home, but in a theater during a show, they are positively deafening. A few years ago at an Off-Broadway play, I sat behind a woman who spent—this is not an exaggeration—15 minutes opening a Werther's Original, completely unaware that she was drowning out all the dialogue onstage. Every little thing in the theater makes noise, and it is your responsibility as an audience member to not add to it. Many foods also have aromas that seem less delicious than distracting while a show is going on. Eat before the show, eat after the show, eat at intermission—don't eat during. Approximately 99,999 times out of 100,000, you don't need to.

    8. If you do have to eat or drink, do it quietly. I left the tiniest bit of wiggle room in that last rule because there are a couple of medical occasions when it's not entirely unjustified. If you bring with you to the theater a cold that may require you to pop a cough drop, open the package before the show, unwrap all the lozenges you'll need, and keep them in your lap. If you're seized by a coughing fit, grab a cough drop and open it as quickly as you possibly can--in this case, and this case only, is it really the lesser of two evils. Again, this condition only applies to actual need; because you wanted Skittles at intermission and didn't finish them before Act II started doesn't count. But, really, if you're not feeling well, you're better off not going to the show in the first place.

    9. Leave after the curtain call. The people onstage have been working hard for the last two or three hours; you can wait an extra couple of minutes to get out of the theater. Plus, the other people in your row who may not be giving a standing ovation or may not want or be able to move don't deserve to fall victim to your selfish timetable. Stay respectful of everyone and wait until the show is completely over.

    10. Be polite and respectful in how you respond. There's no need to laugh extra loud just to show that you get a certain in-joke, because everyone can tell when you do that. Don't greet every song with some full-throated bellow, because then your reaction has no meaning. Respond as you're genuinely moved to respond, keeping in mind that there are other people around you who also want to watch the show and react as they see fit. Don't deny them their experience.

    11. If someone corrects your behavior, do what they say. Every person in the audience is a guest of the theater and should behave that way, preferably by following the rules listed above. But if you're not, and someone nearby tells you to stop talking, turn off your phone, or put away the candy, do it. You are at fault. Don't make a big deal of it, don't get all indignant or violent (I had someone threaten to beat me up once because I dared to call him on his horrendous behavior), just change your incorrect behavior and move on with life. Once again, it's not all about you, and the sooner you remember that, the better a time everyone will have when they go to see a show—first and foremost yourself.

    Did I leave anything out? E-mail me and let me know!

    Why are you looking all the way down here?
    For more articles by Matthew Murray, click the links below!

    Previous: No Good Can Come From Bad

    Next: The Best and Worst of 2011

    Or go to the Archives

[Broadway Ad Network]

[Broadway Ad Network]