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Theatre Etiquette Debate: Part 1

With people in the theatre community having conversations about discrimination in the industry, some are arguing for a complete reconstruction of the way things work. Since we’re all on pause at the moment, it seems a good time to do so.

Titmus Theatre, NCSU, © Arts NC State
Titmus Theatre, NCSU, © Arts NC State

There are plenty of articles to be read regarding racism, sexism, classism, and overall elitism experienced by industry professionals, so I’ve chosen to shift my attention to the experiences of audience members. In order to address so many of the inequalities within the industry, I think we should begin by looking at the very first experience so many people have with theatre - as observers. If you don’t feel welcome in the audience, you won’t feel welcome onstage or backstage.

In recent years, headlines have been made by ill-behaved audience members as well as the actors who very publicly scolded them. People constantly complain about rude people in theaters. In 2014, theatre professional Richard Gresham put forth a charter meant to encourage adherence to certain etiquette rules in theaters. Some of these rules include: keeping your phone turned off, using the restroom in advance, and unwrapping candy only at certain times, like during applause or before the performance has started.

Gresham faced pushback from those who believe theatre etiquette rules to be elitist, exclusionary, and gatekeeping. Gresham believes the rules are necessary for all audience members to enjoy the show without distraction.

So who is right? Who gets to make the rules, and what should they be?

To answer these questions, we must first begin by looking back. Audience etiquette rules are a relatively new concept. In ancient Greek and Roman theaters, the public got quite rowdy, throwing things at the actors if they weren’t enjoying the performance. There were some rules, like your social class determining where you got to sit, but nobody would shush you or look down on eating during the show. Theatre was for entertainment, not for showing off your manners and knowledge.

In Chinese and Japanese theaters, there were similar divisions between social classes. In Japan, there were also divisions between genders, and women went to theaters in disguises because it was considered improper for women to attend. The audiences were less raucous than in Greece or Rome, but people would still talk and order drinks during performances. Chinese audiences would sometimes stop the show and request something different if they didn’t like what was being presented.

In England, theatre was looked down upon by the church for centuries. The only truly permissible form of theatre was traveling pageant wagons meant to perform bible stories for the masses who couldn’t read. In Shakespeare’s day, theatre was growing in acceptability. Shows were attended by all social classes but the pricing was different depending on your seating. The wealthiest people would even sit on the actual stage where their expensive clothes could be seen by everyone else. Shakespeare’s crowds were rowdy and terribly behaved by today’s standards.

During England’s Restoration period, theatre shifted to be exclusive to the upper classes and was treated less as entertainment and more as a social event. The lights were full on both the stage and the audience so everyone could see each other as they talked throughout the entire performance. The actors had to really project. By Georgian times, theatre had gone back to being mass entertainment and there was even a riot in 1809 after ticket prices were slightly raised.

This audience behavior was not exclusive to the theatre. Those who attended Mozart’s performances were allowed to react in a way now prohibited by classical venues. They could clap when the music moved them, not when the conductor gave a physical cue that the music was over. They would shout "Da capo!" at exciting points of the composition. This is unthinkable today.

The cultural shift in audience behavior was not a shift; it was an abrupt, enforced change. The emerging bourgeois class wanted to both physically and symbolically separate themselves from the masses. This could be done effectively with new rules of etiquette. Those who were less educated but could still afford to go to the theater were made to feel that they did not belong because they did not know the rules of behavior. High culture and low culture were separated at this time, according to Highbrow/Lowbrow author Lawrence Levine. Theatre went from being a popular form of entertainment for everyone to a snooty status signifier for the wealthier and better-educated.

Not all of the new rules were determined by bourgeois attendees, however. It was the composer Richard Wagner who first decided to turn the lights down on the audience so they would be more focused on the performance, rather than on socializing. Later, stage lighting would be invented, taking this new custom to another level and further separating the artists from the observers.

In 1876, when Wagner opened the Bayreuth Festival Theatre, he insisted on silence from the audience. This became the behavioral norm and a sign of respect. Those old-fashioned rowdy audiences would not do. Over time, those bad behaviors became associated with the riffraff you did not want among you in a theatre, and that same disdain was directed at those you felt did not "belong", including women. In 1840, one man in New York wrote "all women shall be gagged by officers duly licensed for the purpose before they’re allowed to enter a concert room."

It can be argued that some of these rules of etiquette which have survived are actually helpful and respectful. Not talking during a play allows others to hear what actors are saying and it also helps the actors focus more on their performance. Other rules are less about courtesy and more about policing others’ behavior, like following strict dress codes. It’s nice to dress up to see a play, but someone else wearing jeans doesn’t make the show less enjoyable for me. Some of the rules seem like obvious, common sense, but not everyone knows them automatically. If I hadn’t grown up with godparents who regularly took me to the theater, I’m not sure exactly which rules I would be aware of today. Strict rules about audience behavior can feel exclusionary and elitist because not everyone has had the opportunity to attend shows throughout their lives. They show up trying to enjoy themselves and are looked down upon for their infractions, small and large.

The biggest debate in theatre etiquette today is around phones. Some feel that their presence is inevitable and should be accepted to some extent, but others find them enraging. One rule - not recording the show on your phone - is legitimately about the law and protection of intellectual property. Otherwise, opinions vary. The light from a cell phone can be distracting for other audience members, as well as for performers. A few years ago, Broadway legend Patti LuPone famously stopped in the middle of a song to admonish someone who was texting. Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter also stopped mid-performance to tell a woman to stop recording her. That woman was eventually escorted out of the room. One notable moment of internet outrage was directed toward a college student who hopped onstage to charge his phone in the (fake) outlet which was part of the set.

To address this problem, some including Patti LuPone say we need to enforce a no-tolerance policy on phones in theaters. If you’re on your phone, then you get kicked out with no refund. Most theaters are not this strict. In my experience as a Stage Manager, if I saw someone on their phone, I could let one of the ushers know and they would handle it. Theaters outside the U.S. have begun jamming phone signals so people can’t send or receive messages, though that is illegal here in the U.S. Other theaters are using laser pointers. If someone is on their phone, an usher will pull out a laser pointer and point it at their screen from behind. This helps if the offender is in the middle of a row, but there’s debate as to whether it’s more or less distracting than an usher walking down the aisle to address someone. There’s also the issue of laser pointers looking like sniper guns, which would be a big issue in the U.S.

There are a few venues which have decided to embrace phone usage in theaters. Some shows involve phones in the productions themselves, by having some dialogue texted to audience members during a performance. Others, like the Philadelphia Orchestra, have created apps to help guide audience members through the music. The Boston Symphony Orchestra has begun doing this on "Casual Fridays" in designated seats. While taking photos during the show is still frowned upon, theaters are now telling patrons they can take photos of the set before the performance, and photos of the actors during curtain call. Actors who attract audience members because of their fame are starting to stay an extra few minutes after curtain call to allow fans to take their photo and ask them questions.

So far, the approach I have found most effective is not from a traditional theater, but from the Alamo Drafthouse. The venues are newer, which allows some rules to be followed more easily than they could be in venues with older, tighter seating arrangements, but other places could still take a few cues from them. At the Alamo, if someone is talking too loudly or on their phone, or otherwise seriously bothering you, then you can report it to one of the ushers or servers. That person will be given a warning and if it happens a second time, they’re kicked out without a refund. This system could potentially be abused, but so far I haven’t seen any problems arise. People there seem to have a good time and be respectful of each other. The Alamo also has another feature, which traditional theaters could adopt - "rowdy screenings". At these designated movie screenings, the audience is allowed to laugh loudly, cheer, and generally just react to the action onscreen. They still aren’t allowed to carry on full conversations or use their phones during the screening, however.

So how do we encourage considerate behavior in theatre without crossing into snobbery or elitism? I believe this will be up for debate for a long time, but there are ways we can adjust.

First, theaters should be clear about their rules and make them easy to learn. Make them easy to access on websites as well as in the programs. Include some of the rules in the curtain speech. Generally, make it easy to learn how you should behave so newcomers can easily enjoy themselves without worrying about rule-breaking.

Second, we should more frequently produce shows that feel genuinely casual. I’m a big fan of new stagings of old favorites, which can easily be done with Shakespeare. It would be good to experiment with new audience seating arrangements, new venues, and outdoor productions when possible. One way to gain more audience members, which the theatre industry has been discussing for decades, is to get out of the restrictive norms we’ve been following for so long.

One of the newer developments, immersive theatre, is what I’ll be discussing in my post next week. Until then, send me a message and let me know what etiquette rules you think should be required in theaters, and which rules you think are antiquated.

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