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Teach youngsters theatre etiquette

Anjana Vasan and Chris Jared in RSC First Encounters production of The Taming of the Shrew. Photo: Simon Annand
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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.

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