Kenneth Saw wants your best behaviour…and your opinion! 
Amongst the many anecdotes that are repeated around my circle of friends is the one about when we saw The Woman in Black on the West End a few years ago. It’d been recommended to us as being the scariest thing you’d ever see on stage. “If you don’t believe that theatre can scare you like a horror movie,” we’d been told, “you’d better think again.”
So we went along… and honestly, it wasn’t quite what we’d been led to expect. Even so, when the climactic moment came, everyone was still at the edge of their seats. As the main character approached a doorway upstage, an ominous feeling began to fill the audience. Everyone was waiting to see what was lurking behind that door. But just as he placed his hand on the handle, a woman in the audience screamed.
The auditorium was immediately filled with laughter. The tension of the moment had been shattered. One of my friends had been unable to control herself, and had screamed out “don’t open the door!” just at that vital moment. What was actually behind that door, very few of us even remember; we were all so busy laughing.
A funny story for us, yes, but there would’ve been members of the audience who were extremely annoyed with the gaggle of rude Australian theatre students that had effectively ruined the play.
Clearly, what my friend did was unacceptable theatre etiquette by any standards. It wouldn’t have made a difference whether we were watching a farce or a work of high drama, yelling comments during the performance is rude beyond excuse. But it’s not always that simple. As theatre becomes more accessible to the layman, the lines between a live show and its closest modern-day cousin, seeing a film at a cinema, are getting blurred. And in an effort to make audiences feel more comfortable with attending a theatrical performance, the “starchiness” of theatre etiquette has been watered down.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Back in Shakespeare’s day, talking throughout a performance was the norm. Going to see a play was a social occasion, with the action on stage merely a backdrop to the banter going on in the stalls. It was truly theatre for the masses.
But even Shakespeare’s audiences might have raised an eyebrow at what happened during a performance of the musical Mamma Mia in Perth two weeks ago.  It started with a trio of rowdy women who’d been singing and talking throughout the performance. Things got so bad that another woman in the row in front repeatedly tried to silence them, only to end up being dragged by her hair over her seat before being assaulted. The whole affair erupted into a fight which the ushers then had to break up so that the show could go on. Obviously, in a comedic musical like Mamma Mia, the audience is encouraged to enjoy themselves, and get into the spirit of the show, but where should the line be drawn here? Is it the prerogative of the promoters and venue providers to tell people to “have fun, but not too much fun”?
A similar dilemma is whether or not food should be brought into the theatre. Food has always been a major part of going to the cinema, and this seems to have spread into the theatre realm as well. At most shows, food purchased in the foyer during interval isn’t allowed inside the theatre, because of the noise of eating and the scrunching of wrappers. Wine glasses especially, because of the obvious safety issue they present if placed on the floor. But I’ve noticed that, at the last couple “big-hit” musicals I attended, food and drinks sold during interval weren’t only allowed in the auditorium, they were being sold in the auditorium, cinema-style, by vendors with eskies full of choc-tops and cold canned drinks!
Now, I understand that these big musicals usually aren’t aimed at connoisseurs of the theatre; in fact, their aim is to attract audiences who wouldn’t otherwise ever attend a live stage show. I admire and applaud that. However, I believe that standards of theatre etiquette should be set and adhered to, no matter who the show is aimed at. Basic rules, such as turning off or silencing one’s mobile phone, are already universally known and respected. But the finer details of the etiquette regarding talking or whispering, eating, texting, humming or singing along… or even when to applaud? Who polices them?
Should it be a shaming system then, where the disapproving glares of other audience members makes the offender stop? As the Mamma Mia example shows, this isn’t always the best way. Seasoned patrons of the theatre should also remember that it’s their behaviour that newer, less experienced theatre goers learn from. Those who have never been to see a live show before are likely to draw on a similar experience, such as going to see a concert or a movie at the cinema, and base their behaviour on that. It’s not that they’re out to ruin the show for other audience members; they simply don’t know any better. Maybe it should be the responsibility of the promoters and venue providers, then, to have guidelines posted on their website when bookings are made, in a pamphlet mailed out with the tickets, or even a sign in the foyer? Any of these would be better, at least, than the current trend of encouraging poor theatre etiquette by selling food inside the auditorium.
Some might ask, what differentiates theatre etiquette from cinema etiquette anyway? Aren’t they basically the same? I can see their point, but on many levels, going to a play or musical is nothing like going to the cinema. Often, when watching a play, the actors are unamplified. It’s hard enough to hear the actors without the distraction of someone munching away in the seat next to you. In a small theatre, this might even be distracting to those on stage. More so, film is something that was recorded, copied, widely distributed and then repeatedly shown. Theatre is live, happening in front of you, and is never performed exactly the same way twice. There are people on stage working hard for the audiences’ entertainment, and I believe that this demands a higher respect.
And that’s what it all comes down to: respect. Not just to the artists on stage, but to other audience members as well. Tickets to live shows these days aren’t cheap, and everyone in the audience has paid a lot of hard-earned money to be there. They all deserve to see the show without disruptions.
Maybe this is just an Australian thing. I would love to hear from any readers who have seen how audiences behave themselves at Broadway shows, which would attract all sorts of audiences, or on the more conservative West End?
Or maybe I’m just old fashioned when I say I enjoy a good, proper, slightly “starchy” night at the theatre. I like going out for a nice dinner beforehand, having a glass of wine at interval (which I always finish and return the glass before returning to my seat!), and I’d prefer it if I didn’t have to listen to your live commentary on the performance, thank you very much.
Kenneth Saw has a background in classical singing and musical theatre, and has worked with the Dandenong Theatre Company, CLOC, and Opera Australia in shows such as Sweeney Todd, Miss Saigon and Così Fan Tutte. He is currently working towards a degree in Linguistics, majoring in English Language.