West End theatre owner Nica Burns has claimed the industry must adapt to a changing society in which audiences want to eat and drink during performances.
However, she said it was right that venues have control over what snacks are brought into auditoria by patrons, as she set out a long-term plan to combat complaints over eating in theatres.
Last week, Burns, who runs West End theatre operator Nimax, said the company had begun testing how noisy certain snacks were  before stocking them in venues, and had already stopped selling certain products that were deemed too loud.
Speaking to The Stage, she stressed that society’s eating habits had changed and that theatres must recognise that more audiences now want to have snacks and drinks while watching shows.
“It used to be that we had three meals a day but now it’s much more common to eat on the go. We [theatres] have to understand the fact that things have changed… Places of entertainment now have a lot of people who want to be able to eat sweets and snacks,” she said.
But Burns said they also needed to “balance an individual with the rest of the audience”.
“You can’t eat your takeaway in the theatre, for example, because it’s a confined space and the aroma of your curry or your McDonald’s is not necessarily appreciated by everybody,” she said.
Despite this, Burns claimed it was not uncommon for patrons to ask to bring takeaway food into Nimax venues, and one audience member had recently asked to order a pizza to their seat.
While audiences are unable to take “proper food” into theatres, Nimax will continue to sell snacks such as sweets or popcorn, though it is taking steps to ensure the products its theatres sell are not disruptive to audiences or performers.
“To try to improve the experience for all theatres we’ve been looking at the packaging… We are in a place of transition. A few of the very noisy packages have now been gracefully retired, and we’ve brought in similar ones that don’t make any noise,” she said, adding that the operator planned to introduce snacks with recyclable plastic containers that do not crinkle, and sweets that are not individually wrapped.
She said the company was in a trial-and-error stage of sourcing new products, but would consider having packaging created if it did not find suitable alternatives to standard brands.
“[As a company we have to] find a balance between having goods to sell that people want to buy without disturbing the concentration [of actors or audiences], and minimising the amount of the noise they make. It’s a work in progress,” she said.
Earlier this year, all food was banned from the West End production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , whose star Imelda Staunton had previously complained that audiences eating was distracting .