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Audience etiquette: what is acceptable behaviour in a theatre?

How can we stop mobile phone usage in theatres? Photo: Shutterstock How can we stop mobile phone usage in theatres? Photo: Shutterstock

Ringing phones? Rustling sweet wrappers? Common complaints of ‘bad behaviour’ from audience members. But the author of a new book tells Lyn Gardner that ‘the rules’ are unclear and potentially discriminatory


The night before meeting Kirsty Sedgman, a Bristol academic whose book The Reasonable Audience: Theatre Etiquette, Behaviour Policing and the Live Performance Experience is about to be published, I am at the National Theatre to see Nina Raine’s Stories. Just as the show begins, the woman next to me begins unwrapping a sweet very, very slowly and very, very noisily.

So, what would Sedgman do in such circumstances when a fellow punter has dragged you out of the action unfolding on stage? “As an academic interested in audience research, I would take a non-interventionist approach,” she replies carefully.

And as a human being? She smiles. “There have been times when I have told someone off.”

Kirsty Sedgman

At the NT that night, I didn’t say anything, aware that such interventions often create more of a commotion than the original disturbance, but I glared. But what if I was mistaken? What if it was not, in fact, a sweet but a tablet that – for medical reasons – needed to be taken at a particular time? What if it was a sweet but it was being unwrapped to stave off a coughing fit? Or maybe the ‘sweet’ was actually an anti-acid for chronic indigestion?

I may never have thought in those terms but for Sedgman’s fascinating book. It looks back over the history of how audiences have behaved and been policed in the theatre over the centuries, and also covers the panic around audience behaviour that surfaces regularly with lurid headlines about punters behaving badly.

“Is this the worst West End Audience ever?”, asked Richard Jordan in his online column for The Stage back in 2016 after going to see Kit Harington in Doctor Faustus, during which those in the auditorium with him ate McDonald’s and filmed the performance using their phones. Numerous articles have appeared in which commentators have asked whether audience behaviour is in terminal decline and theorising as to why audiences don’t obey the unwritten rules of theatre.

Some have even tried to lay down some rules, including the Theatre Charter in 2014, backed by Stephen Fry, in an attempt to get audiences to switch off their mobile phones, and behave more quietly and respectfully for the sake of the actors. The theatre is, after all, their workplace. Imelda Staunton once called for a ban of all food in the theatre, and signs went up at the Harold Pinter Theatre while she was in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? asking audiences not to eat.

 Imelda Staunton called for a ban on eating in the theatre while appearing in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? last year
Imelda Staunton called for a ban on eating in the theatre while appearing in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? last year

But are audiences really rowdier than they were in the past? Sedgman not only references the boisterous behaviour of those in the crowd during Shakespeare’s time but also that of mid-18th-century audiences. She traces how, from the 19th century onwards, audiences have become more restrained – or perhaps retrained – to respond in a quieter, more reflective way. She also points out that people have been complaining about audience behaviour since the time of the ancient Greeks.

While it is true that “mobile technology has caused a new outbreak of moral panic”, Sedgman says the bigger issue is “what happens when a large number of people are concentrated together in a public space and have different ideas of how we should all behave”. If it wasn’t mobile phones, it would be something else: eating, coughing, leaving mid-scene to go to the toilet.

“We see these moral panics in other crowded spaces too: in the debates about whether a train is a place to put on your make-up, what you should eat on a bus, how children should behave on an airplane,” she says. “Of course, audience behaviour is a very first-world problem and in many ways it is unsolvable. But my interest has always been in the balancing act. We all want to find the reasonable compromise, the middle ground, but what we individually think of as acceptable differs very widely. We all have competing versions of what is reasonable in our own heads.”

She’s right. While some wouldn’t blink about wearing flip-flops to the theatre, others think the theatre is a place to dress up. Some may feel that they are right to chastise fellow audience members, as Mark Shenton did in 2012 when he challenged Bianca Jagger for taking flash photos at the Barbican. Others say such actions create more of a disturbance and set audiences up against each other with some individuals policing others.

Watching a performance of Doctor Faustus in the West End (starring Kit Harington, above) led Richard Jordan to ask whether his disruptive fellow theatregoers were “the Worst West End audience ever”. Photo: Marc Brenner
Watching a performance of Doctor Faustus in the West End (starring Kit Harington, above) led Richard Jordan to ask whether his disruptive fellow theatregoers were “the Worst West End audience ever”. Photo: Marc Brenner

One of the theories put forwards about what some believe is increasing antisocial behaviour in theatres is that newer, younger audiences simply don’t know the rules and conventions. This has led to the rise of the theatre etiquette guides found on dedicated websites and even on the information pages of some theatres.

“These tend to be tips and tricks that are being presented as a benevolent gesture to people who might not know or who are not regular theatregoers,” says Sedgman, who has studied hundreds of them. “What’s astonishing is that 82% of them use an imperative mode, which suggest that the writer comes from a position where they are saying: ‘I know the right way to behave and I am telling you.’ ”

Howard Sherman: Stop telling audiences how to behave – let’s encourage people to enjoy themselves at the theatre

But when audiences are seen as misbehaving, might there be other reasons? If a play is less than captivating, people quickly disengage and become restless. The behaviour may be brought over from new forms of theatre that are more interactive. And theatre has been painfully slow to become more representative in terms of who gets to make it and who gets to go, leaving many unsure how to act when they are there. But as this starts to change, perhaps audience behaviour will naturally evolve with it?

So how do you balance the needs of those who want to treat theatre like a church and give it their rapt concentration, and those who see the theatre as a community space in which they have an active – and sometimes vocal – engagement with the stage?

“It’s interesting how we negotiate these things,” Sedgman says. “I don’t have the answer, but I am interested in the way a culture of surveillance and policing makes some people feel uncomfortable and how being publicly shamed and judged affects people’s ability to take part and be in a public space.”

Kirsty Sedgman’s new book explores the complexities of attitudes towards audience etiquette in the theatre

She gives the example of the couple struck down by a cold, coupled with a bad cough, the day of a show they had booked in advance and were looking forward to seeing. They decide not to attend because they didn’t want to disturb the performance for anyone else. That is, of course, thoughtful and reasonable behaviour.

What about those with long-term conditions that mean they must permanently exclude themselves from the public space of the theatre or risk disturbing others? Jess Thom of Touretteshero has spoken eloquently about the experience of being made to watch a show from the lighting box after other audience members complained about her tics.

‘We should think harder about how the policing of audiences can lead to some groups feeling excluded’ Kirsty Sedgman

“I’m not necessarily saying that there should be no policing, because society is based on rules to which we all adhere,” Sedgman says. “But what I am saying is that we should think harder about the visible and the invisible and how the policing of audiences disproportionately affects some groups, including disabled people, and how that leads to some feeling excluded.

“Does theatre, which is a public space, really want to be a place where some people will feel judged before they even step inside? These are big questions. I find them fascinating, both personally and as an academic, because we all think of ourselves as being reasonable people.”

The Reasonable Audience: Theatre Etiquette, Behaviour Policing and the Live Performance Experience by Kirsty Sedgman is published by Palgrave Macmillan

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