BLOG: THE DECLINE IN THEATRE ETIQUETTE
Updated: Apr 11
I have been considering writing a piece about the declining levels of theatre etiquette for a while. With recent events at touring productions of The Bodyguard and Jersey Boys making national headlines I thought that now was the time to share my thoughts on the issue.
I have been receiving numerous messages over the last couple of days from people who are deciding to go to the theatre less because of these behaviours and also from people who are now anxious for upcoming theatre trips. This breaks my heart as theatre for me is my safe space and I think it's absolutely disgusting that these behaviours are discouraging people from attending theatre productions. A theatre is an inclusive space and no one should feel that they cannot attend because of unruly behaviour.
This unfortunately is not a new phenomenon, but in my experience the issue has worsened since the pandemic and the forced closures of theatres. Did people really forget so quickly how to behave in a civilised manner?
I see theatre as my escape. A place I can lose myself in a different reality and where I am free from judgement and I can really be myself. These behaviours infringe on my enjoyment and the experience of 99% of the audience who can behave with dignity and respect.
Image: Police were called to The Palace Theatre in Manchester after a performance of The Bodyguard was cancelled before the finale due to bad behaviour from some audience members and mini riots erupted. Image Source: Google
TALKING AND SINGING
One of the biggest annoyances that occurs during theatre performances is the total disregard some people have for fellow theatre goers and the cast on the stage. Talking loudly through a performance is incredibly rude and distracting. During a recent visit to Jersey Boys there were a group of people right in the middle of the front row who had loud conversations throughout the performance, much to the annoyance of everyone around them and also to the performers.
Some of my worst experiences of talking throughout performances in the West End have been at The Lion King and Elf. I think that this is because these shows attract a lot of children and the parents seem to be conversing with them throughout. I actually missed a lot of the on-stage dialogue at The Lion King because the noise was so loud. This is obviously an ongoing issue at this show at there was a big notice in the front of the programme as well as an announcement before the show started asking people not to talk.
Then there are the all to frequent occasions when people seem to think it's ok to loudly sing along. THIS IS NEVER OK. I really don't care if they're the world's greatest singer or not (and let's face it they're not!) I have paid my money to hear the professionals perform and not Sharon from Wimbledon who thinks she's the next Celine Dion!
This problem seems to be more prevalent at Jukebox Musicals such as Mamma Mia and Tina because the songs are all popular songs which an audience are already familiar with. The trouble is that theatre ticket prices continue to rise (which is a separate issue that needs to be looked at) and as people become a lot more selective on what they spend their money on, a night at the theatre can be a real treat which is then unfortunately ruined by the selfish few.
Most productions now have signage up at theatres and make an announcement before the performance starts asking audiences not to sing along. Most Jukebox Musicals incorporate a singalong element into their finale where you are encouraged to get up and have a dance and a sing, but until then please leave it to the professionals.
The issue is that these shows are stories and not concerts which means that words in songs may be changed to fit the story so people aren't even warbling the correct lyrics! Also sometimes the on-stage singing will just stop and dialogue will replace the song, and people are still loudly singing so you miss what is being said.
I love a sing song as much as the next person, but not at a musical! Well, not until the finale when you are usually invited to sing and dance. The most I will ever do is mime along! That way I'm still enjoying myself but I am not affecting anyone else or ruining their experience. It's call respect. It's as simple as that.
Would people sing along at an opera or get up and dance during a ballet? Of course they wouldn't! So why do people think it's okay to behave in this disrespectful way at a musical?
I have had many shows ruined by people who don't have the common decency to just sit there and enjoy a performance. I have recently had a bad experience at a performance of Fisherman's Friends where I had to actually move seats because the group of people behind me continually spoke throughout the performance and then sang out of time and out of tune at the top of their voices.
It's the sheer ignorance and entitlement of these people and the utter lack of respect they show to others that gets me. I was at a recent show where a lady was waving her arms and singing loudly, obviously trying to draw attention to herself.
This issue erupted this week when presenters on This Morning were laughing and making fun of a theatre that were trying to discourage audiences from singing along. Alison Hammond has now put out a statement apologising for her comments and saying that she didn't realise what a big problem it is. That's all well and good, but is it too little too late? Most celebrities such as her very rarely pay for their theatre tickets, so they should at least use their platforms to support the industry.
There are some productions such as The Rocky Horror Show which actively encourage participation and the show even has an audience script which you shout out at certain points throughout the performance. You are invited to get up, sing and dance and get involved. It is important to remember that shows like this are the exception to the rule, and the danger is that people take it too far at such performances. I was at a production of The Rocky Horror Show once where audience members got so carried away that they had to be wrestled to the floor by theatre staff and the second act was delayed while we waited for the police.
Of course I am not against people enjoying themselves but there is a way to act when at the theatre. If you want to sing along then some shows such as Bat Out Of Hell will do dedicated singalong performances which you can attend. If not then you can go to a concert or karaoke night where this sort of behaviour is allowed.
Image: The statement released on social media platforms by Manchester's Palace Theatre after last weeks incident during a performance of The Bodyguard.
Unfortunately a lot of these issues seem to be fuelled by alcohol. I don't understand why people get really drunk and then go to the theatre! Drunken patrons have ruined many an experience for me in recent years. The theatre seems to have become an activity for things such as Hen Parties, which then brings huge groups of drunken individuals into the space.
I'm not really sure how this can be dealt with but it seems that there should be a warning that if you turn up to the theatre drunk then you will be refused entry. Most theatres now do close their bars whilst a performance is happening, but there are some that don't. This can result in audience members getting up constantly to refresh their drinks.
Drunken audience members can also be intimidating, especially if they are in a large group, and unfortunately they don't seem to care about the other 1000 people or so that are trying to enjoy the performance.
I don't think that a blanket ban on alcohol in theatres is the right answer because why should the sensible members of society be punished because of the actions of these people? Also, it's expensive to run a theatre so alcohol sales bring in much needed revenue.
Maybe there should be dedicated members of security at theatres, rather than leaving it to the poor Front of House teams to manage.
Eating is another issue at the theatre. The constant rustling of sweet wrappers and crunching of crisps can actually be deafening at times. I do think that theatres should stop selling certain snacks such as crisps and popcorn as the noises these create can really impact on someones enjoyment of the show.
These types of snacks are bad enough but I have honestly been at the theatre before when people have waited for the show to start and then pulled out burger and chips from their bag! Then it's the smell that is aggravating!
Another issue at the theatre is mobile phones. Once again there is signage all around asking you to switch your phone off or put it onto silent and to not take photographs or film the performance.
Once again, people feel entitled and will literally sit through a show texting, checking social media and even making phone calls! It's so annoying when you're really engrossed in a scene and all of a sudden a phone rings. It completely breaks the illusion of theatre and can ruin the entire experience.
I don't see how hard it is to go without your phone for a couple of hours. If you're not enjoying a performance then just leave! Don't sit there ruining other peoples enjoyment. I either switch my phone off or put it into aeroplane mode, as I don't even want to be distracted by vibrations.
The other issue is photography and filming. Again, often this is encouraged during the curtain call and finale of a show as it is a great way of free publicity for the production! However, this is different for each show so if you are unsure then just ask a member of staff who will clarify the rules of the theatre.
Images: An example of posters you find in theatres asking patrons to behave respectfully and detailing rules of attendance. Image Source: Google
FRONT OF HOUSE TEAM
The Front of House teams at theatres across the country do an amazing job and I have the utmost respect for each and every one of them. They really don't get paid enough to deal with the behaviours they are expected to on a daily basis.
There have been recent reports of Front of House members being spat at by patrons as well as verbally and physically abused for just doing their job. This is abhorrent behaviour and is never acceptable.
I am always respectful to these incredible people and always say thank you to them as I'm leaving the theatre. Last year I almost made a member of Front of House cry (in a good way!) because I said thank you to her for always being friendly and polite and it was lovely to see how much she really loved her job and cared about the audience members.
The talented performers on the stage have trained for years and been through a gruelling casting and rehearsal process to bring you a quality professional performance and they deserve the respect of the audience members.
All these people want to do is to deliver an enjoyable performance and experience for theatre goers. Can you imagine trying to do your job and having drunken, entitled neanderthals shouting out and singing?
I can't imagine how stressful it is for performers who are giving 100% on stage and have no control over the unruly behaviour of the few audience members who don't know how to behave in a civilised manner.
One thing that they always do is handle it with dignity and professionalism.
The final thing I would like to talk about regarding theatre etiquette is behaviour at the Stage Door.
I do not go to Stage Door after every show I see. I do go if I want to see a specific performer, I have really enjoyed the performance and want to show my appreciation or am meeting a friend who is part of the cast. There are some shows that I always go to the Stage Door for, such as Jersey Boys, because it's one of my favourites!
It is however important to remember that Stage Door is a privilege and not a right. I tend not to stop a performer to speak to them, instead I just wait and if I get to speak to someone to share my appreciation then that's great. On the rare occasion that I have stopped someone I am very respectful of them and am aware that they have finished work and are now on their own time.
I am always thankful if a performer stops to speak, but at the same time I'm completely fine when they just walk by and smile or say a quick 'thank you for coming'. No one has a right to be spoken to and it's important to remember that these performers have private lives to get on with and you should never infringe on their right to privacy. If they have a train to catch, friends to meet or family to get home to then that must be respected.
I have seen performers shouted at and even heckled because they didn't speak to every single person at Stage Door. This is completely unacceptable.
There are also fans who think they are more important than others which is just ridiculous. I have made some great friends through chatting to fellow fans at Stage Door. We're all there for the same reason, so let's all just get along and treat the performers with respect please.
Images: I'm always so appreciative when these talented performers take the time to stop and speak, but it is never expected and I'm totally respectful of them whether they stop or not.
One thing's for sure, I certainly don't have all the answers but something really needs to be done about the huge increase in bad theatre etiquette and the negative press around it before it destroys the industry.
Thanks for reading my ramblings!
All views are my own and I pride myself on being open, honest and free from influence.