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

Lin-Manuel Miranda. Photo: Howard Sherman Lin-Manuel Miranda. Photo: Howard Sherman
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The ‘theatre etiquette’ article is a staple on the arts pages, periodically erupting in publications and on websites, and typically prompted by overt examples of audience boorishness. An audience member jumps onstage to try and recharge his mobile phone in the set’s dummy plug-socket? Time for an etiquette article. Audience members checking sports scores throughout a production? Dredge up those guidelines about how to comport oneself.

These handy reference guides range from the condescending to the witty; Time Out New York recently ran an exemplar of the latter. But the problem with these pieces, while likely cathartic for the writers and those who read them, is that by being placed on the arts pages, they are highly unlikely to reach their target audiences: the casual or even rare theatregoer who may well have been dragged along against their will.

In all likelihood, the perpetrators don’t reserve their self-centred, everyone-else-be-damned discourtesy for live arts events. One imagines they’re also cheering on their football team in houses of worship and during important business meetings.

Will they ever learn? Hard to say. But if they don’t, at least they’ll continue to provide fodder for arts journalists and fans who are shocked to find such behaviour at the theatre. But it was ever thus: when I would usher and house manage in the early 1980s, it wasn’t uncommon to find audience members with transistor radios surreptitiously listening to sporting events during Chekhov, often erupting in uncontrollable, though slightly muted, cheers. All that has changed is the technology.

On the flip side of these perennial think pieces are messages from artistic figures that aren’t about what not to do, but rather how audience members should feel free to enjoy and indeed express themselves at the theatre.

In 2015, playwright Dominique Morisseau wrote a widely read article for American Theatre magazine titled ‘Why I Almost Slapped a Fellow Theatregoer’. It recounted how an audience member took it upon herself to suggest to Morrisseau, repeatedly, what she should or should not do during a performance, going so far as to ask the playwright to suppress her laughter and clapping. In her essay, Morisseau explored the racial overtones of the incident.

Last summer, when her play Pipeline was playing at Lincoln Center Theater, Morisseau penned a short note to playgoers, which appeared as a half-sheet insert in the free theatre programmes. In it, she gave the audience permission to respond as they saw fit to her play. “My work requires a few ‘um hmmms’ and ‘unh unhnnns’ should you need to use them. Just maybe in moderation. Only when you really need to vocalise. This can be church for some of us, and testifying is allowed.”

She continued: “This is also live theatre and the actors need you to engage with them, not distract them or thwart their performance. Please be an audience member that joins with others and allows a bit of breathing room. Exhale together. Laugh together. Say ‘amen’ should you need to.”

“This is community,” Morisseau concluded. “Let’s go.”

Exactly a year later, also at Lincoln Center Theater, at a performance of the revival of My Fair Lady, another theatregoer took it upon himself to inform a theatre artist about proper behaviour at the theatre. Appearing in script form on a Twitter thread, the exchange was described:

Condescending Theatregoer: Well I didn’t know this show had so many laughs – you were certainly enjoying yourself. (Passive aggressive shaming me for laughing – at the jokes)
Me: Yup It’s a great show!
CT: Oh yeah, I’ve seen it a million times. I like old-fashioned musicals. (Emphasis on Old Fashioned: He doesn’t like Hamilton)
Me: So do I, this is one of my favourites! (My cheer is throwing him)
CT: I like shows where YOU CAN UNDERSTAND ALL THE WORDS. (Haaaaaaaa. Aight, let’s get into it)
Me: SO DO I! What show ARE YOU REFERRING TO?

The ultimately chastened Condescending Theatregoer had actually entered into this conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton itself, who apparently put the fool in his proper place without ever being anything less than polite.

Miranda concluded his Twitter chain by counselling his millions of Twitter followers: “The lesson here, if there is any: there is always the type of theatregoer that defines themselves by excluding others. You could write musicals, and they’ll still try to make you feel like you don’t belong. Don’t you dare let ‘em. You love theatre? You belong. Welcome.”

As someone who has been known to do the ‘head swivel and stare’ to quiet theatregoers who insist on talking through shows, especially those who do so on their mobile phones, I am not immune to the desire to enforce a certain level of respect within an audience, for other patrons and for the artists on stage. But I’ve never sought to rain on a fellow audience member’s parade. Indeed, good times are infectious, and why theatre is so profoundly different from sitting at home in front of the TV.

That’s why I applaud Morrisseau above and beyond enjoying her plays, and salute Lin-Manuel, for using their place at the centre of the creative process to speak to audiences about how to enjoy the theatre, rather than listing all of the things they shouldn’t do. They have also had the opportunity to do so while speaking out about the underlying, and even overt, racial basis for some of this promulgated schooling.

The ‘don’t lists’ remind me of school groups I’ve seen attending the theatre, who have proper behaviour drilled into them for days before attending, so much so that they can often be strangely quiet in fear of post-show retribution. I’ve occasionally pointed out to students, in pre-show chats, that they should feel free to laugh and clap, and some have responded almost in amazement.

Perhaps we need more encouragement in how to appreciate and enjoy the theatre, and a bit less behavioural programming and admonition. Theatre for me, even when its serious and dark, is how I entertain myself, how I have fun and experience the release of emotions. Too many rules aren’t necessarily the way to guide others to a comparable experience.

Kit Harington: Prejudice against ‘responsive’ audiences threatens to kill theatre

This week in US theatre

The newest entry in Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions series, which previously yielded All The Way and Sweat, is Idris Goodwin’s The Way the Mountain Moved Me, which chronicles the development of the transcontinental railroad in the 1800s. It opens Saturday night under the direction of May Adrales.

After it was postponed a year ago by Stacy Keach’s heart attack during previews, Jim McGrath’s one-man show about Ernest Hemingway, Pamplona, makes its belated Goodman Theatre debut on Sunday. Robert Falls, the company’s artistic director, stages the work.

Rinne Groff, whose previous work at the Public Theater includes The Ruby Sunrise and Compulsion, returns this week with her newest play, Fire in Dreamland, focused on the making of a film about a 1911 fire at the Coney Island amusement park in New York. Marissa Wolf directs the world premiere, opening Monday.

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