Theatre etiquette seems to be the cool thing to complain about these days. There were several high-profile stories in the news this past year (just Google “Patti LuPone photographer” or “Fun Home cell phone”), while nearly anyone who cares about the theatre wrings their hands in conversation with you about clueless audience members’ bad behavior.
As someone who has now performed steadily in a theatre this year, I can say that many of the etiquette rules that get trampled are in fact valuable information, for both the safety of the performers (seriously!) and the experience of other patrons. So here’s my short top five things to know as an audience member at a theatrical event (including opera, dance, musical theatre, or straight theatre).
- We can see (most of) you.
In my theatre, which is the size of a moderate Broadway house, I can see almost every face in the orchestra level seating. Literally. I can what people are wearing, I can see if they’ve fallen asleep (which happens more often than you’d think), I can see when they decide to check their phones.
I don’t think most people realize this! It’s easy to think that when the lights go down, you’re in complete blackness out there in the audience, but if you’re in the front several rows of seating, you’re actually lit by quite a lot of light! Some of it bounces off the sets and the actors, and some of it is actually coming directly from lights above or in front of you, but the point is, you are in full view. If you wouldn’t want to be caught doing something on a stage, don’t do it in the audience! Other patrons may see you, but worse, the entire cast can see you – and is probably watching you anyway. (We do get bored.)
- If you must leave, do so during the APPLAUSE.
I can’t tell you how rude it is to leave in the middle of a song. Maybe in a rock concert, it’s no big deal, but in a classical concert, a theatrical event, or even a church service, it is UNBELIEVABLY distracting to everyone in the audience.
This is because two things happen in that instant you stand up: first, people get annoyed that their view is partially or fully blocked, and then seconds later, everyone starts wondering why you’re leaving. Do you hate the song? Are you offended? Are you bored? And then everyone starts to ask themselves, wait a minute, should I be bored too?
Unless you are going to emit bodily fluids in the next four minutes if you don’t leave, please, please, PLEASE wait until the next applause cue to stand up. It’s amazing how much less people notice it if you leave between songs. Most people assume, Oh, he’s going to the bathroom, and then they don’t think a thing of it again.
The other reason not to leave during the middle of a song or dance number is because it is devastating to the performers onstage. Seriously. Even if you’re doing your absolute best performance of all time and you know it, if someone stands up and walks out in the middle of it, doubt and fear pour into your head, and suddenly it’s all you can do to stay in the moment you’re playing.
This has happened to me so many times over these last few months. I don’t actually mind if you ARE offended or have another appointment in the middle of the show; heck, you can hate everything about me and my performance. Just don’t distract the performers and patrons from the moment we’ve created. Wait three more minutes. Please.
- Please don’t laugh at us.
Yes, this has happened multiple times. As with standing up and leaving in the middle of a number, laughing at a moment of sincerity or tranquility jars us performers out of our performance and fills us with self-doubt. Just be respectful. When you’re at a comedy, by all means laugh; but if you’re in a quiet or touching show, try to treat the performers the way you’d like to be treated if you were putting yourself on a stage in front of several hundred people.
- The no-photography rule really is about safety.
Until you’ve stood on a stage in front of 800 people, trying to sing and dance your way through 45 or 60 minutes of material, I don’t think you will appreciate how easy it is to be yanked out of months of memorization and repetition. And the biggest, most serious offender is a camera.
Any light coming back at us is a major distraction, even the little red light that glows on a lot of cameras in night mode or something. However, flash photography is truly dangerous. It momentarily blinds the performers – and I’m completely serious about this – which may not sound like a big deal until you realize that a single misstep can cause a career-ending injury. If I forget that one piece of blocking, I can fall 10 feet down into an open pit onstage.
I admit to having taken photos during certain performances, if it’s a moment I want to capture; however 99% of the time, I limit it to the curtain/theatre before or after the show. So I do understand (covertly) breaking the rules. But if you’re going to take photographs or videos, then 1.) do NOT sit in the first several rows where we can see you and 2.) be 100% sure that you’ve turned off the flash before the show starts. Be a conscientious rule-breaker.
But the number one thing I wished audience members understood is…
- The audience is as much a part of the show as the performers are.
I may have touched on this subject already on this blog, but it remains true. The audience brings at least 50% of the energy to a show. Because live theatre is a communal experience, unlike a movie or a TV show. No other method of storytelling is as intimate as one told to a limited number of people in one building at one moment in time. It is temporal. It is intimate. It is real.
It reminds me of watching fireworks, actually. I have spent one or two Fourth of Julys watching the televised fireworks broadcast with my family, and it is the most boring experience ever. Whereas to see fireworks live is to feel the sound waves hit your body, to join the collective gasp or cheers of those around you, to see a light more brilliant and colorful than a screen can ever simulate. They are completely different experiences – and one of these is unarguably more visceral and impacting than the other.
Another, perhaps better, analogy is a sports event. I don’t think sports would be as popular if you were completely silent and/or asleep when your favorite team scored a touchdown. Half of the experience of going to a live football game is the crowd! The crowd energy is a huge part of the event. Athletes can attest that the participation of the crowd actually affects their performance. If you don’t feel like being a part of the crowd, you can watch from your quiet couch at home, but if you’re there in person, you know that you are a part of the game. It’s no different in theatre.
So know that the next time you step into a theatre, you are as important to the success of that night’s show as the orchestra or the stage crew or the performers. If you aren’t present in that moment, you are sapping the room of its energy, depriving yourself and everyone, in fact, of a moment of genuine connection in a technologically disconnected world. Whereas, if you arrive ready to engage with the story, with the performers, with the strange world created in that room that night, you might be touched, you might be delighted, or you might be astonished. It’s a surprise each time.
It’s just one night of your life. Don’t miss it.
Though I am an employee of Princess Cruise Lines, all opinions are mine only and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.