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Do We Need a New Etiquette Guide for Theatre?

Last week a theatre producer was thoroughly fed up when Jon Snow fans came to see Kit Harrington in a production of Doctor Faustus at the Duke of York’s Theatre. According to the critic, young audience members enjoyed big macs, talked, used their phones (in some instances to record), and were generally unruly.

In an era of endless entertainment, it’s no secret that theatre has needed a reboot to drive attendees. While we can all agree that we need new, young people going to performances, it does beg a question about what etiquette ought to be applied to reflect these modern changes.

If we are to consider manners from the Emily Post perspective, than it’s really about empathy. Here are a few considerations to guide you through your next night out.

People worked really hard to do this and (except for Kit Harrington) were probably not paid very much.

While actor’s unions govern how much an actor is paid, theatre productions are often on a strapped budget and many performers make closer to minimum wage. On top of that it’s often temporary, part-time work but demanding enough they can’t take on additional work. Why does this matter? It’s a career of passion and talent that not simply anyone could do, so having the decency to stay seated (instead of, say, going on stage to charge your phone) is a tiny way you can show them you appreciate the effort.

The fourth wall is just an illusion. 

When you’re at home watching TV or a movie, crunching loudly on popcorn or getting up multiple times to take a bathroom break will only annoy your partner. At a performance, these habits will not only be disruptive to your fellow patrons but can disrupt the actors as well. After all, though we’re all supposed to pretend they are in a different reality than us, you know they can still hear and see you, right?

You can mess up a cue.

Which brings us to our next point. Extraneous noises can distract an actor from their lines, and putting things on stage can disrupt a scene – like the time our own Paul Piaskowski came in on cue and was meant to put a prop on a table near the audience, only to realize a rather bold attendee had decided to put her purse there as well.

Actors still get nervous.

Before you give the retort “but it’s their job!” think back to the last time you had to give a big presentation at work. Just because you get paid for it, doesn’t mean that even experienced actors don’t still get a little nervous before a gig. Their parents, girlfriend, or even a critic could be in the audience, so consider how you can help them give their best possible performance simply by being quiet and attentive.

There are always exceptions to the rules.

While some theatre-goers are disruptive out of a lack of caring, there are times it can’t be helped. An actor from The King and I shared his disappointment when his audience turned on a mother whose child with autism was making noise during the performance. In this scenario the noise couldn’t be helped, but the child and parent of course should still be able to see a performance and be as enriched because of it as the rest of us.

Like most things in life, empathy is your best bet to guide your choices so you can treat the actors and everyone else who worked hard with respect. Theatre etiquette isn’t about about old-fashioned snobbery, but treating everyone well. If you need it more black and white than that you can check out this Broadway etiquette guide.