Early in March, I attended China Ningbo Performance and Arts Group’s The Red Dress, a spectacular portrayal of a love story that showcased the rich Chinese folk dance language. I felt fortunate to have had the opportunity to relish the customs of dynastic China over the two hours of that performance.

Yet the experience was far from perfect, owing to aspects completely removed from the goings-on on stage. The evening served as an example of the declining standards in theatre etiquette in Australia. Ushers led some patrons to their seats well into the first act (read 40 minutes). One woman, who sat just a few rows in front of me, had no qualms about the light from her smartphone beaming back onto the audience members behind her. For much of the show, she took snaps of the onstage action, showing each one to her friend and then intermittently returning to playing with her phone, light again beaming. She finally exited the theatre well before the conclusion of the second act.

This kind of inappropriate behaviour has been far from an infrequent experience for me. And it’s not just the odd crinkled lolly wrapper. I find, increasingly, patrons treat 2,000 seat theatres as they would their own living rooms. There’s little to no alteration of their behaviour according to setting. Do people just lack knowledge on what constitutes good form for different situations? Or do they just not care about the distractions they cause for those unfortunate enough to occupy the seats around them? Is it time for a little community education, or re-education, on what not to do in the theatre? Is it time keen theatre buffs became less tolerant of poor form from other ticketholders that potentially stops them from fully enjoying their chosen performance?

Above: Audiences must note a difference in etiquette between attending different ticketed events. (x)

One particular phenomenon I’ll never understand is the talker; those who feel compelled to commentate the action or explain an event that’s just taken place to the person next to them (and the rest of that particular seating section!) The odd whisper is excusable, but not a conversation where participants make no effort to take down the volume whatsoever, as though they’re on the lounge around the telly having a d & m about the scene they just watched on Offspring.

Sometimes, I do wonder whether people remember where they are. When Legally Blonde had its premiere season in Sydney in 2012, I attended a performance where, not five minutes into the show, a male attendee got out of his seat and exited the auditorium. His seat was conveniently located smack bang in the centre of one of the Lyric Theatre’s middle rows. Had he forgotten to make a pre-show trip to the toilets and the calls of nature were just too strong to ignore for another 70 minutes?

It turns out that wasn’t the reason at all. Said man returned to the theatre about 15 minutes later, a full tray of beers in tow. Apparently, what he wanted wasn’t right in front of him at that exact moment! He slowly began his journey back to the middle of his row, distracting all patrons he had to step over in the process. It wouldn’t have hurt had someone reminded him that this wasn’t a clash between Collingwood and the Western Bulldogs. This was a theatre where, short of an emergency, you don’t leave the room until the lights go up.

Above: Some patrons at Legally Blonde treated the event more as a football game than an upscale musical.

Pulling out the phone and having its light beam across surrounding patrons is another habit that shows discourtesy. In addition to the abovementioned disengaged audience member at The Red Dress, I sat amazed a couple of years back at the exceptional balletic choreography on display during the Paris Opera Ballet’s Sydney season of Giselle. I was also amazed at how, at times, a father sitting in the same row, who was attending with his wife and two daughters, was more than happy to whip out his iPhone whenever it suited him and sit there writing messages and emails, with no care in the world about the distracting nature of his behaviour to those around him, who had all paid in excess of $200 to witness the work of the amazing company.

And that brings me to another issue – the cost of seats and the age of patrons who occupy them. It’s important for me to stress that I’m very much an advocate of children becoming exposed to The Arts from an early age. For me, it’s as important as a child’s initial steps into education and first forays into sport. But at what age is it appropriate to take a child to a theatrical event, heavily attended by adults? At what age is it okay to put a poorly-behaved child in a seat next to an adult patron, who paid top price for their experience? King Kong sat in residence at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre for most of 2013. When I attended, I had the misfortune of being seated next to two parents with two children under 5 (probably about four and two-years-old.) Now there’s no denying Kong was much more of a visual experience and there was no complex dialogue to which it was necessary to stay glued, however, from start to finish, it was clear the children weren’t engaged by the performance. They were loud, and often needed to be restrained on their parents’ laps. What were their parents thinking by bringing them along to this performance? The Wiggles tour regularly and children in Australia have several other theatrical offerings specifically aimed at them, which offer far more enriching and age appropriate material than a professional musical targeted at the adult, or at least teen, dollar. Why is it okay for parents to unilaterally decide that it’s okay for their children to attend these shows and that other premium-priced seat holders will just have to lump their children’s poor attention spans? For this reason, I’m very much of the opinion dedicated children’s performances should become a normal part of the weekly schedule for bigger productions that might appeal to a younger audience.

Above: King Kong, with overwhelming sound and often scary effects was not a child friendly show, yet Australian audiences continued to bring young children to the detriment of other audience members.

So is it time to start expecting better behaving theatre patrons in Australia? Is it reasonable to expect that you won’t have to address any distracting or inappropriate behaviour yourself by engaging directly in a conversation with offenders (which conversations invariably lead to some level of hostility)? What’s actually okay and what’s not in Australian theatres?

Oscar Wilde once said, “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being”. Let’s behave well enough to allow ourselves and others to have that heightened experience good theatre can offer.

Do you have any horror theatre ettiquette stories? Let us know your thoughts on how to solve this issue!