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The Editor’s View: Theatre etiquette is confusing

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Theatregoing used to be so simple. You’d sit in a dark room, quietly watching, only breaking the peace and quiet to laugh loudly to indicate to fellow audience members that you’d understood the Shakespeare pun or witty Stoppardian reference.

At the end, you’d clap politely, or – occasionally – get to your feet for an ovation. You didn’t eat (except an interval ice cream), you didn’t talk and you certainly didn’t do anything with your mobile phone, because they hadn’t been invented yet.

The rules may not have been written down, but they were clear and strict, and woe betide anyone who broke them.

Then along came jukebox musicals that asked you to dance along to a megamix. At Shakespeare’s Globe, actors started engaging with the groundlings. At gigs and comedy shows, these same audiences – sometimes in the same theatres – were allowed to buy drinks and food and consume them mid-performance. They were allowed to heckle and sing along.

Next, immersive theatre asked audiences to touch the set, to react to the actors. Numerous performances now not only allow audience participation, but encourage, even require, it.

Rules of audience engagement vary wildly from one show to the next. And the expectations of what one audience member finds permissible also varies from one person to the next.

On The Stage website this week, producer Richard Jordan has written about a trip to the West End that was ruined by audience members eating hot food and loud snacks, talking and taking photos and videos with their phones.

I see this is annoying – it would annoy me. But I also have sympathy with the audience members in question. Theatre etiquette – like public etiquette more generally – is in a constant state of flux, in both directions. It is confusing.

There is now no broadly accepted standard of theatre behaviour. Some audiences think they have signed up for one type of behaviour, while others are expecting something entirely, contradictorily, different. Meanwhile, theatres are not clear about the behaviour they expect and, even if they are, they rarely enforce it.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but theatre is never going to win a battle against the wider movement towards a more relaxed, informal society. And it will certainly not attract new audiences by doing this.

Understanding and patience is required on both sides, and theatres need to work a little harder to make sure that expectations can be managed and met.

Read Amber Massie-Blomfield’s response to Richard Jordan’s column

Email your views to alistair@thestage.co.uk

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