Good Theatre Etiquette: is it a dying breed?

When I’m at the theatre, one of the things that can make it all the more enjoyable is being part of an audience that is genuinely appreciative of what they see onstage. In my four years of regular London theatre going, I have had the privilege and pleasure of being part of many wonderful warm, captivated and enthusiastic audiences, my own particular standouts being my most recent trip to Jersey Boys (5th October 2014), Coriolanus (21st December 2013) and The Crucible (June 28th 2014). ‘Genuinely appreciative’ might mean different things to different theatregoers just as we all like different shows and performers, but for me the whole idea of appreciation goes hand in hand with respect. As such, nothing gets my blood boiling quite like when I see many of my favourite performers tweeting about appalling behaviour in their audiences!

To start off with a recent example, last Tuesday two tweets from separate members of the Jersey Boys cast caught my attention in which they were venting their frustration about a couple of rowdy drunken members of the front row. Now, it may be because I’m not a massive fan of alcohol (I only drink one or two glasses of wine when I meet up with a good friend every few months, and will indulge in my favourite tipple at Christmas, but that’s about it), but I personally don’t understand why anybody would want to drink themselves into the point where they become a nuisance to everybody around them, in particular the people who, newsflash aren’t singing, dancing and acting their socks off purely for our benefit. Of course, they do want to do their best and entertain everybody, but I think people sometimes forget that doing that very thing is how they make their living. How would you feel if you were doing your job and people were too off their heads to even bother to pay you the attention you deserve? Even though I wasn’t in the audience at the particular performance,I was fuming on behalf of a cast who I know to be not only incredibly talented but also some of the warmest, funniest and charming ladies and gents I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. They don’t have to give up their time after a show, and yet in my experience they enjoy hearing what a great time I have watching them work, and whatever else we talk about. They (and all the other performers I’ve been lucky to meet) always treat me with courtesy and respect after a show, so the very least I am able to do is show them the very same while I watch.
While we’re still on the subject of drinking in the theatre, I guess it also baffles me how people are willing to pay anywhere around £5 and up for beer, and between £8 – £15 for wine, champagne, or whatever else might take your fancy at the bar on top of the ticket price, which let’s face it isn’t exactly cheap these days unless you can dayseat or get a really good deal! If it were up to me, I wouldn’t have the theatre serve alcohol at all, or at least make the bar open in interval only, with a reasonable limit on the amount you can order. I know that wouldn’t leave people much time to get drinks, but if somebody can’t last two and half hours without alcohol and then get so drunk they disrupt proceedings for the performers and other members of the audience who actually want to enjoy what’s going on onstage, then I for one seriously find myself asking why they bother buying a ticket in the first place.

Right before the show begins, audience members are told a couple of things; two of which are switch off your phones and flash photography is strictly prohibited. Yet these are two things that I see appear time and again on my Twitter feed from quite rightly irate performers: that a show is ruined by people who cannot leave their technology alone. Picture the scene: the lights are down, a character is mid dialogue or musical number, and in that darkness all that actor can see is a camera flash or light from a mobile phone screen, how disrespectful can you get? I would be the first to admit that I am a prolific interval tweeter, but therein lies my point: I leave it till the interval, when I know that it won’t disturb anybody, and also that the cast might have time for a quick check of their own Twitter feeds then, so they can see what a good time I’ve having from my tweets, it’s just my way! When you have the complete experience unfolding right of you, why on earth would you spend it glued to your phone or your camera? That’s the joy of live theatre for me, it’s completely immersive and something I savour with both my eyes and ears, and nothing can compare to the clarity of some of those experiences, even months or years afterward, and I know that these would be cheapened if I try to capture them by any other means. That said,I’m not for one moment trying to set myself up as a saint: I have been known to go to smaller cabaret style concerts of some of my favourite performers camera in hand (and got some shots I’m very proud of, come to that) but I would never dream of doing so if I was told in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t allowed, especially in a theatre. One argument I hear more often than not is: ‘well that’s what the ushers are there for’, and it isn’t one I’m convinced by; the ushers shouldn’t have to police behaviour in the first place and if they do, surely that has potential to make the situation more disruptive? I think upholding good theatre etiquette needs to be more of a balanced effort, but above all: it needs to start with the audiences themselves.

I’m all for new and perhaps less experienced audiences, after all they are what help keep the art of theatre alive. But I am sick to death of hearing that so many of the performers I love, and the people who genuinely want to enjoy the show are having their experiences marred, by what is quite simply rudeness and lack of common sense. There is an initiative going around at the moment called the Theatre Charter, which you can find here: http://theatre-charter.co.uk/, which I’d urge everyone to read and sign. More than that though I beg: If you’re going to by a ticket: sit back and damn well watch the show!

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2 thoughts on “Good Theatre Etiquette: is it a dying breed?

  1. I was shocked at seeing the drinks offered in a theater when buying tickets for the 25th Anniversary Phantom tour, and I’m from the US! While you can buy alcohol in abundance at athletic events here, I have never seen a movie theater that offers it. I’ve only seen it occasionally with theatre and that limited to Christmas or New Years and either a pre- or post- show party.

    • Jen- Crazy isn’t it? Our movie theatres offer wine, but only occasionally, like with the screening of Phantom 25th. I get why they do it, any excuse for more money at end of day, but at time I was like: ‘we’re in the cinema for god’s sake, not a dinner party!’ Our concerts and other events can also be terrible for rowdy drunks. I’m not trying to be a killjoy, I just don’t get it!

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