Last September I wrote a column listing some dos and don’ts of theater attendance. I was a bit concerned that people might think I was being some kind of fuddy-duddy, so I was surprised when I received numerous positive remarks. Given that response, I thought it would make sense to repeat some of my admonitions at the beginning of another theater season.
Going to the theater is not the same as watching TV at home. You’re out in public surrounded by people who have paid to see a live performance. That in-the-moment aspect of theater is what makes it special — bonding together to share laughter, surprise or sorrow.
But that doesn’t mean you need to express your personal opinion to others around you during the show.
Courtesy should be your byword. My Golden Rule of Theater Attendance is “Behave the way you would have others behave.” Here are some specifics:
It’s fun to be surprised and we tend to hate spoilers, but it doesn’t hurt to learn a little about what you’re going to see. That way you won’t be whispering to someone sitting with you, “What just happened?”
Arrive in enough time to get to your seat without climbing over other people. That means knowing if your ticket puts you in the center of a row.
Don’t hang out in the lobby or connect with a friend in the aisle until the last minute.
Don’t hang your coat or purse over the back of your seat or hog your armrest. And please go easy on perfume or aftershave; you’ll be sitting close to people who might not appreciate the aroma.
Take some time to read the program, perhaps for a message from the director or a plot synopsis. That might enhance your enjoyment of the show, and it will add to your appreciation of the performers and the designers when you discover their experience and credentials.
Most theaters remind audience members to turn off phones. In fact, unless you’re expecting an emergency call, I urge you to leave it at home or at least turn it off — not just silenced. (If you make a call at intermission, be sure turn it off again.) Going to the theater is a chance to escape for a few hours — not to stay connected. Don’t text or check the time during a show; the glow of a screen is distracting to others.
Even if it’s your favorite musical, don’t hum or sing along. The overture is part of the show, so listen and enjoy, don’t keep talking. During the performance, don’t whisper to your companion; save your critique until intermission or after the performance. Holding hands is OK, but don’t get too romantic; your head on someone’s shoulder might block another’s view.
Theaters ask audiences to unwrap cough drops before the show starts. For some reason, that causes people to chuckle. But no one will be laughing at crinkling noises during a quiet moment. If you have a cough, consider staying home. If you’re tired, do the same: Falling asleep (and possibly snoring) can disturb people around you, and you certainly won’t get your money’s worth out of the show.
Many people like to go to dinner before a show, but drinking too can make you sleepy. Some theaters let you bring drinks to your seat. I think that’s a bad idea, but I’m apparently in the minority. If you have one with ice, please keep it quiet.
During the curtain call, it’s rude to rush up the aisle to beat everyone else out of the theater. Take the time to show your appreciation. But don’t get carried away: Standing ovations have become all too frequent. When standing up becomes obligatory, it’s meaningless. Unless what you’ve seen has been truly remarkable and you truly feel it, I urge you to remain seated and applaud with enthusiasm appropriate to the performance.
I don’t imagine that my remarks a year ago influenced audiences in the U.K., but I have found a kindred spirit there in Richard Gresham, a theater sales and advertising consultant. In July I read about his campaign to recruit others to sign a pledge honoring audience members’ right to “uninhibited enjoyment” of any show, to respect performers, to follow rules of etiquette and to encourage good behavior in others.
Nearly 2,000 people have signed up at theatre-charter.co.uk; the site contains numerous common-sense guidelines that I heartily recommend.
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