“The play was a great success, but the audience was a disaster." – Oscar Wilde
If ever there were doubts in my mind that Oscar Wilde was a true genius, this quotation would have allayed them. How many times have you been to the theatre and found yourself completely intolerant of certain other audience members? I am sorry to say that this has often been the case for me and it has left me wondering "where have all the good-mannered theatre people gone?" Melbourne is supposedly the ‘Theatre Capital of Australia’ and yet, at times, it feels as though people are leaving their good friend 'polite etiquette' at home and bringing their old buddy 'footy cheer squad member' to a night at the theatre. This was made increasingly clear to me during interval at Hairspray recently when I overheard someone on their mobile phone state, “Yeah, I’m at Hairspray but it’s OK to talk because it’s half-time”. Sigh.
Forgive me if I come on too strong, but I am extremely fervent when it comes to theatre etiquette. There is no excuse for poor theatre manners. Maybe I am expecting too much from my fellow human beings? But this apparent relaxation of audience protocol does not sit well with me. After all, isn’t most behaviour that we deem 'polite' just plain commonsense? For example, kicking the back of the seat in front of you is not acceptable behaviour. I would have thought this too obvious to mention but somehow, it continues to happen in theatres (and airplanes) across the globe — and it’s not just children.
It is not acceptable to ask questions about things you do not understand whilst the show is in progress. Make a note of the question and ask at interval. And if you happen to be the recipient of such an ill-timed question, do not proceed to give a five-minute explanation until the house lights go up. I don’t understand how people can continue to pay the ever-rising ticket prices and then forge ahead with their own conversations as though their words are anywhere near as witty or meaningful as those of The Bard or Beckett. During one production, I was shocked and appalled when a phone rang. “Okay,” I thought, “someone’s forgotten to turn their phone off. That’s annoying but I’m sure they’re sufficiently embarrassed by this.” WRONG. The offender went on to hold a conversation with the caller. If an Australian theatregoer isn’t going to be quiet for Anthony Warlow’s dulcet tones, when is she?
Noisy snacks in the theatre are not OK. I do not know why theatres have started to sell such items. This is just asking for trouble. I remember when theatres used to sell Kool Mints in cylindrical containers like Pringles. This was much more bearable than the rustling sound of someone with a sugar craving trying to unwrap their lollies mid-show. We are not in a cinema, people! In fact, the only time I have ever witnessed complete silence at the theatre was the recent Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance of King Lear. Everyone was glued to their seats with their eyes fixed firmly on the stage, some not even daring to breathe for fear of missing something – I am not entirely sure if this was a result of the sheer talent on stage, the ticket prices in excess of $200, or a full frontal Sir Ian McKellen, but whatever the cause, it sure was nice not to be disturbed for a change.
In 2009 I took in an evening performance of Shane Warne: The Musical. I know that this may have a slightly different demographic to the usual theatre frequenters, however I am of the opinion that regardless of this, there is still a sense of public decorum to be upheld. It was about fifteen minutes into Act I when I became aware of this pungent smell wafting throughout the stalls of the Athenaeum Theatre. After I recovered from the initial assault on my senses, I glanced around and found a man who had decided to remove his footwear- in the very row in which I was sitting.
Another obvious (yet no less annoying) 'Don’t' is latecomers. I would urge theatres to adopt a strict 'lock out period' policy. If someone is over 20 minutes late they should be refused entry or made to stand at the back of theatre to watch the show and find their intended seats after interval. I know some people may find this harsh and I understand that people have still paid their money to see the show but this is a matter of respect for actors and audience alike. I will admit, however, that at one point in my theatre-going career I feared I was going to arrive late. This poor timing on my part resulted in me rushing my party straight past a line of people 'smoking' outside the venue and into front row (general admission) seats. It turns out it wasn’t a queue of smokers, but rather, the line of people waiting for the show…
Perhaps my biggest pet peeve in regards to audience courtesy is the unashamed-ness of those who cough or sneeze incessantly. I am not saying that people should never cough or sneeze in the theatre, these things happen, but when it descends into a regular and frequent event would it not be proper to recuse yourself into the foyer of the theatre until the 'fit' has subsided? Be warned; should you find yourself suffering from such an affliction during a show at which I am in attendance, I will shush you! On the other hand, I have mellowed a tad since my experience at Bell Shakespeare’s Othello in 2007 where such an event occurred. I shushed, the Stage Manager stopped the show, and the perpetrator was carried out on a stretcher. Oops!