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Quiet at the back, please!

From that sweet packet rustling in your ear, to the audible conversation a few rows back, if you’re a regular theatregoer you will know that fellow audience members can irritate in any number of ways! But at what point does inconsiderate behaviour progress from being slightly annoying to being so disruptive that it ruins a performance….and what can you do about it?

Having often felt the need to ask people to be quiet, or even to move myself to a different seat, I spoke to a variety of theatre fans, from audience members to the cast and creative teams themselves, about the behaviour of theatre audiences. I am not suggesting we all sit in theatres in complete silence, with our arms folded, and Maddy Costa may well be right when she suggests in The Guardian that theatres might be more inviting places if they rejected the snobbery inherent in a code of conduct. But I’m sure many theatregoers will recognise some of the complaints below.

Eating and drinking annoys many theatregoers. Everything Theatre reviewers Laura Kate Jones and Steve Caplin both confess to being irritated by crisp-munchers and drink-slurpers, with Steve commenting that many people seem to confuse a night at the theatre with a trip to the cinema. Whilst there is a lot to be said for the idea of theatre and cinema being interchangeable as entertainment options, it is also true that in the cinema your popcorn will never disturb the artists, and that in the theatre an interval is often thoughtfully provided for the taking of refreshments.

Many….rustle through the packet looking for personal favourites. It makes me want to scream, ‘you pic’d them, they’re all sweets you like’

Ray Rackham, Artistic Director of the London Theatre Workshop, describes his annoyance at the dreaded pic’n’mix, “Many don’t just delve in and take whatever finds its way to their fingers, but rustle through the packet looking for personal favourites. It makes me want to scream, ‘you pic’d them, they’re all sweets you like’.” Tim Read, theatre blogger, suggests that this is partly the fault of the theatres themselves: “why sell so many types of sweets that are incredibly noisy to eat … it basically gives people a licence to make noise, and there is nothing that you can do to complain”.

As much as we all love our phones, one magical or moving moment can be ruined by a ringtone, and even a vibrating phone is noisy enough to annoy fellow audience members in quiet productions. But if you think the only problem with mobile phones is forgetful people not turning them off, you’d be wrong. Reviewer Anna Malzy recalls her shock when, during a performance at the Old Vic, one audience member made a call and left a voicemail during the performance!

And while we’re on the subject of talking during a performance, let’s give a mention to the ‘running commentator’. Some audience members just can’t seem to help talking to their companion during a performance, whether it’s about the the show or not. As Anna Malzy says, “fine if you’re at home watching a film, but it’s rather annoying hearing a fellow audience member’s every last comment and question on the action!” At a performance of Les Miserables I was sitting in front of a man who loudly compared the show to the book; even his partner had to tell him to be quiet after a few scenes. As mentioned above, longer shows generally come with an interval which, once refreshments have been taken, is the perfect opportunity for a lively discussion of the first half.

Other irritations that came up in my research include loving couples, latecomers and the inebriated. Or course it’s fine to be in love, but if you lean affectionately on your partner’s shoulder it does slightly defeat the point of staggered seating. It’s also understandable, occasionally, to be late; traffic jams, tubes strike, babysitters bail. But if you’re late please find the seat nearest the door so you don’t make everyone else in the theatre aware of your tardiness. Finally, the inebriated. While we can all probably recall shows that would have been better through beer goggles, we can also probably agree that drunkenly vomiting in the second half is unacceptable – and I’ve seen it happen!

People shouldn’t behave inconsiderately, but if no-one challenges them, are they ever going to stop?

Anyhow, after several theatre trips which have been marred by the behaviour of other audience members, I have finally gained the confidence to ask people directly, and politely, to be quiet. It usually works. Tim Read also asks people to be quiet or to turn off their phone, but gets annoyed by those other audience members who sit quietly seething. “People shouldn’t behave inconsiderately, but if no-one challenges them, are they ever going to stop?”

Not all performances require audiences to sit in silence, and the very nature of theatre is to prompt a variety of reactions. 

Of course, many shows encourage noise and involvement. Not all performances require audiences to sit in silence, and the very nature of theatre is to prompt a variety of reactions. Attending a children’s theatre performance and hearing their exclamations can actually enhance the magic of a production. Drama teacher Laura Kressly explains that many children don’t get taken to the theatre, so they do not know how to behave in that setting, but “taking kids to see a show that’s geared towards them can be a phenomenal experience”. She recalls a performance of Romeo and Juliet for younger audiences, in which they were cheering in fight scenes, shouting ‘don’t do it’ to Romeo in the death scene and talking amongst themselves when bored. Although it would generally be frowned upon in a conventional performance for adults, she suggests that their behaviour was “much more authentically Shakespearian and full of energy”.

Most people are out to be entertained and therefore willing to be quiet and immerse themselves in the production. 

Whilst I have ranted here on my own behalf and that of fellow theatregoers, it should be said that the vast majority of theatre audiences are there because they love the experience and wouldn’t dream of disrupting a performance. In fact the view of amateur actor and frequent theatregoer Neil Clarke contradicts most. “I think on the whole audiences are actually very well behaved in terms of theatre etiquette. I believe that most people are out to be entertained and therefore willing to be quiet and immerse themselves in the production. Besides they will probably have spent a good deal on tickets.”

In the end, theatre etiquette is really no different from etiquette in any other sphere of life. It is an expectation of behaviour that respects the comfort and happiness of others. So the next time you’re in the theatre, just stop and think – do you really need that cola bottle, or could you settle for a jelly baby…at least until the interval!

 

Have you had a particularly bad theatre experience? Or perhaps you think there should be more freedom to make noise in theatres? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

About Lily Middleton

Lily Middleton
Lily graduated from the University of Surrey with a Music Degree and has worked in a variety of cultural spots in London ever since. She is currently at Chelsea Physic Garden but previous jobs have included an intriguing year working at the Horniman Museum and Gardens with an overstuffed walrus and in the press team at Battersea Arts Centre which opened her eyes to theatre she'd never been brave enough to attend before. Ever since, Lily has found herself becoming more and more adventurous, and has even braved the odd immersive theatre experience, although police charging into a warehouse in Hackney and pushing her out of the way may have been a step too far.
  • Backdrifter

    I agree the miscreants are a minority, it’s just that they are very noticeable and can cause disproportionate disruption. My approach is to wait to see if they stop whatever annoying thing they’re doing and, if they don’t, to politely ask them to stop. I try to do this non-confrontationally, and on the whole it seems to work but sometimes they start back up again later or, on rare occasions, give an abusive response. This might be what puts some people off tackling them, but otherwise I agree it’s equally annoying that so many people remain silently annoyed without doing anything about it.

    Apart from the usual stuff – sweet wrappers, phones, talking – a particular dislike of mine is talking specifically during overtures/after lights down and during curtain up, some people apparently thinking this is acceptable because there’s no dialogue yet, and clearly don’t regard pre-dialogue action or music as being an equally integral part of the show.

    Ones I haven’t experienced but heard other people complain of: hot food being consumed, on one occasion a pizza and another time even a curry. Someone else related how a woman got too comfortable by easing her shoes off and polluting the air with her foot odour. Many who’d find asking someone to be quiet not too bad would hesitate to say “Excuse me miss, could you put your shoes back on please, your feet stink”.

    I do find food and drink consumption can be intrusive; eating noises, smells, and while I like red wine the fumes of someone else’s in a theatre can be unpleasant. At most I’ll take in some water but not a clicking/cracking sports bottle. You do wonder how people can’t realise how loud they are being. There are ways of stopping ice from clacking loudly in a plastic cup, but hardly anyone seems to bother, likewise I sympathise with having tickly coughs but at least TRY to stifle or muffle it! Ultimately it comes down to the hope that most people will use common sense and know what is and isn’t acceptable .