Teach youngsters theatre etiquette

Anjana Vasan and Chris Jared in RSC First Encounters production of The Taming of the Shrew. Photo: Simon Annand
Anjana Vasan and Chris Jared in RSC First Encounters production of The Taming of the Shrew. Photo: Simon Annand
Susan Elkin
Susan is Education and Training Editor at The Stage
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The very first piece I wrote for The Stage, nearly twenty years ago, was about the behaviour of school parties in the theatre. Interestingly I have needed only very rarely to revisit the subject because most groups are well prepared by their teachers, engage really encouragingly with what they’re seeing and have a strong sense of appropriate behaviour.

But last week I had a disturbing (in every sense) experience which took me right back to my starting point. I went to see the RSC’s excellent First Encounter version of The Taming of the Shrew directed my Mike Fentiman, and reviewed it for The Stage. The venue was an academy in Canterbury with a performing arts block and a spacious studio theatre to which feeder primary schools were invited to see the show alongside the academy’s own students. That meant the audience age was 10-13, exactly the age group this cross-dressed, very accessible, well thought out Shrew was intended for.

Most of the primary school pupils seemed intent on, and enraptured by, what they were seeing and hearing. If only the same could have been said for the older students. There was a great deal of raucous shouting out, especially when a character kissed or thought about kissing another. And yes, I know this may have been what the groundlings did in the 17th century but it is definitely not acceptable now when etiquette requires that you allow the people around you to hear what the actors are saying. Why had teachers not explained this in advance to pupils? I’ve led many dozens of school theatre trips and every child I ever sat with in a theatre, or school hall for that matter, understood what was required because I had made it absolutely clear beforehand.

Of course we all want audiences to laugh, respond and to interact when invited – and to feel relaxed - but there is a tacit understanding that this is managed from the front, as it were.  If you’re in the audience you sit quietly and listen/watch unless you’re invited to do otherwise. This is not a difficult thing for children to grasp and I think it’s an important part of theatre education. The theatre is different from a football stadium.

When the talented RSC Shrew cast got to the potentially excellent question, answer and activity section after the show it grew even worse and they very nearly lost control. Why were teachers not being firmer with their pupils? There were several ring leaders present who would have been removed from the room if I had been in charge. When does enthusiastic participation become deliberate disruption? It can be a fine line but it was definitely crossed in that studio theatre last week.


  1. This is an upsetting and rather patronising attack on a wonderful scheme set up to introduce Shakespeare to young people who perhaps have never been to the theatre before, and who perhaps have never read or seen, let alone actually enjoyed, a Shakespearean production. It is rather ludicrous to assume that an audience can be ‘managed from the front’. Theatre is inherently interactive. As an actor, I know that the performers depend on the reactions of an audience; that these young people were shouting out during parts of the play only demonstrates that they were following what was going on and enjoying themselves- the whole point of First Encounters. This reaction suggests that they are more likely to want to see other productions. Theatre is not meant to be enjoyed in silence- actors are there to entertain an audience. If they fail to do so, they are failing at their craft. A sure sign of approval is for the audience to respond. This response cannot be controlled by the performers.

    The whole point of this First Encounter scheme is not to provide a production for the typical audience a performance by the RSC might attract, but to show young people that theatre is exciting and enjoyable. To compare these young people to the groundlings of old sadly reinforces the idea that theatre is only meant for a certain class of people, and undermines the whole point of this production.The idea that there is a certain ‘etiquette’ expected by a theatre-going audience is a falsehood. The only concrete rules that an audience are expected to follow include no mobile phones and no photography. This ‘etiquette’ of which the author speaks is a nonsensical creation of a certain type of audience member who expects to sit through a performance in monastic silence, allowing a corner of their mouth to rise slightly as an indication of approval of a joke.

    As an actor I love hearing the audience. It lets me know that they are enjoying themselves (unless of course they are voicing their displeasure). It strengthens my performance because I know that I am doing my job correctly, and I am entertaining people. Theatre is entertainment, and to suppose that there should be rules for how an audience is entertained is a sad and boring view of a wonderfully interactive art-form.

  2. I’ve had several incidents with school kids when attending the theatre. When I was at school I went to see To Kill A Mockingbird at a theatre in London (I can’t remember which one unfortunately), we weren’t the only school there but during the performance a phone rang only a few feet away from me and to my absolute horror she picked up and started having a conversation – mid performance. Safe to say I shot her a very dirty look and told her to take it outside or the phone goes over the balcony, probably not the best response on my part.
    Then very recently when I went to see Woman In Black there was a school in the row before – although I appreciate the show is a scary one the girl behind kept screaming at the most calm points and swearing incredibly loudly. The usherette told her to keep it down but it ruined the entire first act!
    I think teachers don’t tell their students how to act because they assume they have manners/common sense and decency – but perhaps the basics need to be readdressed before attending the theatre.

  3. Teach youngsters theatre etiquette?! How about beginning with the adults? There was a time when going to the theatre was a very special event made even more so by the comparitively civilized behaviour of the sort of audiences which this medium attracted (in comparison to that “working class art form” known as the cinema, for example)
    In those – seemingly very far off days now- patrons dressed decently, some even in evening dress, left their overcoats at cloakrooms, did not make straight for the bars and certainly did not take food or drink with them into the auditorium!
    Once inside with the performance about to start these people did not have to be told not to take photos or try to record the performance, if only because they couldn’t and there were no damn mobiles to be turned off- ah! Palmy days!
    It was also considered completely wrong to arrive late and disturb the performers by behaving as if it were still Shakespeare’s time. Applause was reserved for the appropriate times and standing ovations in the West End especially the norm.
    Today, sadly, this is all history.Going to the theatre is still great but it has lost it’s charm and special feeling amid a crush of noisy,sloppily dressed people who – despite the ever increasing prices and whatever the economic situation still have enough spare income to buy junk souvenirs, get drunk,sit in the theatre hall in wet,stinking coats,whilst stuffing themselves and getting even more intoxicated on cheap,nasty wine served in even nastier, plastic containers. As to their respect for even the finest performances well…
    For myself I am just happy that I have the Digital Theatre app and can watch some of the best of recent subsidised theatre without the horrible hassle that actually going to the theatre entails nowadays.
    So..let’s give the kids some good example shall we?

  4. Hello Susan,

    I would like to respectfully disagree with you and corroborate the arguments of those who have commented before me. Firstly I feel your broad and sweeping generalisation about young people is both unfair and unjustified. Not only does it treat teenagers with much disdain but reinforces a detrimental stereotype of theatre as elitist and ‘stuffy’. Rather than spending our time bemoaning the perceived lack of cultural etiquette within young people I advocate that instead we try to bring more young people to the theatre which is far more constructive, culturally enriching and will broaden the theatre-going demographic. As a 16 year old, I regularly attend performances on a weekly basis and write as a reviewer for reputable on-line sites. Upon entering, I have been greeted with looks of irritation, disdain and disgust purely because of this media-reinforced stereotype of the ‘disruptive teenager’. I shall say no more.

    Best regards,
    Chris Combemale

  5. For what it’s worth this article more or less directly contradicts what the director and cast have said in interviews about the production. It is a production that actively encourage the forms of participation the article deplores.

    I took my little cousins to a family oriented play last December that was pretty much entirely schools groups and families with children. There was noise, unrestrained laughter and kids yelling stuff and commenting throughout. Including from my cousins. And I’ve seen my cousins sit through three hours of King Lear without a peep. How kids behave when they’re in a kiddie environment that encourages noise and laughing doesn’t reflect how they’re likely to behave in a quiet adult environment. Any kid will behave differently at Chuck E Cheese than at The Ivy. Or when taken to Alton Towers vs taken to the Tate Modern. Apples and oranges.

  6. I have no problem with children who engage with theatre productions – quite often I have heard a child sat next to me at a show react vocally to what is happening on stage.
    Now for me that shows a real engagement with what is happening – but there is a bigger problem, most children’s first experience with theatre often lies with pantomime where we encourage children to shout out and vocally participate with the production – how can a child be blamed when they then offer the same level of participation at another show, when all they have is their experience to draw from?

    I would sooner have a child say “Oh no don’t go in there” or “I can’t believe she did that” than than the ignorance of adults – who use mobile phones during performances or eat sweets or talk about what they did last night with their friends. I can recall more times where I have had to tell adults to shut up during a performance than I have children.

    I have taken my niece to the theatre since a very early age, in fact I believe she was two the first time we took her, before we went, we tried to explain the story to her before – my experience of noise from children generally relate to understanding what is happening (they are an inquisitive bunch) – we also said if she had any questions about the show to ask them when the lights go up and everybody moves about.

    Sometimes I think its very easy for us “Grown Ups” to forget about 1st experiences and being young and how that affects how we see the world. I would sooner take my niece to the theatre as my companion than many adults.

  7. After a visit to Phantom last Friday with my 11 yr old granddaughter I commented on FB that a leaflet regarding theatre etiquette should be handed out.My child sat enraptured whilst adults around us coughed in the quiet bits,rustled sweets,chatted and drank beer in plastic cups.and that was in the most expensive seats.a group also were allowed in 40 minutes late..40!!

  8. I took 2 children to the theatre, told them what I expected of them and was pleased to say they were well behaved. unlike the children behind us, whose parents sat by watching them distract everyone. My children commented later how distracting they had found the children behind. I also challenged a group of teachers who all sat together ignoring their charges who were causing chaos. their solution was to send the coach driver to sit by my party while the children continued to talk. Perhaps it isn’t children but adults who need to be taught the etiquette so they can pass this to their charges.

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