As the season kicks off, it’s the perfect moment for a few reminders about theater behavior. Attending a play does not require dressing up or even being concerned about when to applaud (that’s more complicated for symphony-goers). But it’s not the same thing as watching TV at home. After all, you’re out in public, in close proximity to other people who have paid to see live performers.
The in-the-moment aspect of theater is the core of the experience; sharing laughter, surprise or sorrow is enjoyable and powerful. But unless you’re invited onstage, your presence is not of interest to others in the audience. So you should do your best to avoid drawing attention to yourself. Courtesy is the byword. In fact, it’s the essence of my Golden Rule of Theater Attendance: Behave the way you would have others behave. Here are some specifics:
Before you go. It’s a good idea to read something about the play you’ll be seeing. This doesn’t mean revealing surprise twists or spoiling the ending, but it could stifle your impulse to whisper to a companion, “What just happened?” Another tip as you prepare for the evening: Be sparing with fragrance or cologne, too much of which can be distracting.
Time and space. Arrive early and get to your seat. If you know you’re in the center of a row, be seated quickly to avoid making everyone else stand up because you were gabbing in the lobby or the aisle. Don’t hang your coat or purse over the back of your seat or hog your armrest.
Be informed. When you arrive with some extra time, read the program, perhaps for a message from the director or a synopsis of the plot.
That can enhance your enjoyment of the show. It’s also enlightening to read about the performers and the designers and gain some appreciation of what they’ve done previously. Also, listen to pre-show announcements about turning off cellphones and refraining from photography.
Ditch the electronics. This means you. Turn off your cell phone. Better yet, leave it at home. (If you must use it at intermission, turn it off when you’re finished.) After all, you go to the theater to escape for a few hours — not to stay connected. Likewise, don’t text or check the time during the performance; the glow of a phone screen in a darkened theater is distracting. One local theater humorously reminds audiences: “Save your texting for the drive home.”
Be quiet. Don’t hum or sing along, even if it’s your favorite musical. Don’t talk during the overture; it’s part of the show. (Humming — even whistling — during intermission is fine.) Don’t whisper to your companion; save your critique of the show until intermission or after the performance. Holding hands with your date is OK, but don’t get too romantic; leaning heads together blocks someone else’s view.
Not feeling up to it? If you’re tired, stay home. Falling asleep and snoring is not only embarrassing but also rude. If you’re coughing uncontrollably, keep your germs in your own neighborhood. Theaters often warn about unwrapping cough drops, an announcement that causes people to chuckle. But no one will be laughing at crinkling noises during a quiet moment. (Unwrapping them slowly is worse, as is foraging through a jumbled purse.)
Consumption of food and drink. Dining out before a show is usually pleasant, but don’t drink too much or you’ll be more likely to fall asleep. Don’t bring food into the auditorium. Many theaters now allow drinks inside, but please avoid rattling your ice.
Standing ovations. I could write a whole column about theater audiences and peer pressure. Bottom line: Don’t stand up to applaud unless you are absolutely ecstatic about what you’ve seen. (I was once part of a standing O at the end of a first act with a spectacular closing number, but that’s once in 40 years of attending live theater.) When standing up becomes obligatory, it’s meaningless. Audiences at touring Broadway shows are especially guilty, as are those at almost any theater’s opening night. Don’t do it unless you truly feel it.
Don’t rush out during curtain calls. Applaud — even cheer or whistle — to show your appreciation for actors taking their bows. Even if you haven’t been so moved, show some respect for the performers. Running up the aisle or down the steps to gain a few seconds on other audience members is just plain rude.
Live theater should be a joyful communal experience. Being civil is your responsibility.
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