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Teaching acceptable theatre behaviour – especially to teachers

Guy and Dolls with band above, Pied Pipers. ADC theatre Cambridge. Photo: Rob Loxley
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I annoyed a lot of people here earlier this year by arguing that children should be taught a little theatre etiquette because, although we want a lively response, it is also useful if the audience can hear what the actors are saying. I also wrote a column recently in The Stage (print only) arguing that eating and drinking in auditoria is an unnecessary distraction.

Well, it doesn’t stop there does it?  And it certainly isn’t something which applies only to children – in fact they quite often behave much more appropriately than adults.

Take mobile phones. One single flash of a mobile or tablet in a darkened space, as some bored person glances at his or her screen, is both distracting and disruptive for the nearest twenty or so people. And as for those selfish thoughtless folk who persist in allowing their devices to ring despite all those reminders to switch off…

Teachers are among the worst offenders. Because I cover a great deal of children’s theatre I frequently sit amongst, or close to, school parties. And more often than not – and no, that is not an exaggeration – the teachers with the group will spend most of the show texting, emailing or otherwise conducting electronic business. It conveys a clear message to the children (who are usually sitting, listening and doing exactly what the show requires of them in an exemplary fashion) that theatre is a childish thing and that once you’re grown up there are far more important things you have to do. It is an utterly shameful example and I’d like to see phones and all other devices confiscated from all teachers at the theatre door. If only.

Then there are people who think that the overture to a musical theatre show or an opera is just background music and that it’s perfectly acceptable to talk through it and ignore it. Last week I attended Pied Pipers’s excellent Guys and Dolls at the ADC theatre in Cambridge. And the overture was beautifully played by a fine 11 piece band. That music is an introduction to the show and an indication that the piece has begun – so everyone should be listening. But the couple next to me chattered loudly throughout the overture as if nothing of significance was happening at all. And it seems to happen somewhere near me whenever I attend musical theatre, opera or ballet when it shouldn’t.

Theatre behaviour is a training and education issue. People have to be educated in these matters. Time was when ordinary courtesy seemed to deal with it but not any more. I think, for a start, theatre managements could be more assertive (as the stewards at the Globe are, for example, about not allowing groundlings to sit on the ground or take photographs with phones) and vigilant. Perhaps even more notices about phones perhaps pointing out that even looking at them is unacceptable are needed? Or a note on every ticket/in programmes etc about not doing anything in the theatre which might impair anyone else’s enjoyment?

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