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Lyn Gardner: Should theatres shoulder some of the blame for poor audience behaviour?

Shaftesbury Avenue in the West End. Photo: Christian Mueller/Shutterstock West End venues are trialling the used of bodycams for their front-of-house staff, but could they partly be to blame for some poor audience behaviour? Photo: Christian Mueller/Shutterstock
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Unlike some commentators in the tabloid press, I rather doubt that West End theatre ushers being issued with bodycams signals the imminent collapse of civilisation. I’m with Adam Charteris, an experienced usher, who has quite rightly pointed out that anything that helps ushers feel safer can only be a good thing.

But I also think we need to remember that ushers are there to welcome and help the audience, not police them. The fact that the cameras have forward-facing screens so that an audience member, given over to a sudden fit of aisle rage on discovering that an ice cream costs £4.50, can see themselves behaving badly is likely to defuse many situations. There is nothing like suddenly seeing yourself losing it to help check your behaviour.

But I would hate to see this story adding to the moral panic over declining audience behaviour. Contemporary audiences are infinitely more sedate than their 18th-century counterparts. I mean, when was the last theatre riot? There may still be some who think gloves are essential for a trip to the theatre and flip-flops just won’t do, but as the academic Kirsty Sedgman, who I interviewed for The Stage last year, observes in her excellent book – The Reasonable Audience: Theatre Etiquette, Behaviour Policing, and the Live Performance Experience – what one person considers eminently reasonable, others may find oppressive.

Audience etiquette: what is acceptable behaviour in a theatre?

She points to increasing concern about audience behaviour as a manifestation of the tensions that emerge “when a large number of people are concentrated together in a public space and have different ideas of how we should all behave”. I suspect that when things turn nasty in the auditorium, it is often because some audience members are trying to police others who are not conforming to their idea of how someone should behave in the theatre.

But there may be other factors at play too. When large numbers of people are herded into a small space, tempers easily overheat, particularly when people have spent a small fortune on a ticket and find themselves folded uncomfortably into tiny seats. When they’ve faced long queues to get into the auditorium, longer queues to get out, more queues for the toilet and then to purchase a £9 glass of wine. It is easy to forget that for many, going to the theatre is a special and expensive treat. They want everything to be perfect, and, when it isn’t, sometimes disappointment spills into frustration and then anger. During the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, audiences endure similar conditions and even longer queues but are infinitely more forgiving, perhaps because prices are far lower.

‘Theatres could do more to help themselves in how they market shows and by examining their own behaviour’

I’m not trying to excuse any aggressive behaviour towards staff or other audience members, but theatres could do more to help themselves in how they market shows and by examining their own behaviour. The warmth of the welcome and the courtesy extended to guests by their hosts often set the tone for the entire evening.

I used to regularly go to matinees at Birmingham Rep, often in the company of several hundred school students. Over the years, I observed that post-interval they were almost always far more boisterous, undoubtedly brought on by the sugar rush induced by the family-sized packets of sweets flogged by the theatre at inflated prices. Although bad behaviour in the theatre always attracts media attention – largely because it is made more visible than it might once have been due to social media – I am not entirely convinced that theatre auditoriums are seething with people looking for a fight. Sometimes it’s harder to discern any signs of life at all in the audience. I reckon theatre should be much more concerned about why so many in the audience snore their way through shows and ask themselves whether it might have something to do with the show on stage.

But if – and I think it’s a big if – what some call poor behaviour is more prevalent, then perhaps it is because theatres are not always clear in their show marketing. Suggest that your show is a party, then parties will indeed turn up expecting just that and react badly when you stop them dancing in the aisles.

Violent verbal or physical behaviour in the theatre is no more acceptable than it is in any other area of life. But perhaps what theatre really needs to ask is why – when the past 20 years have brought about shifts that have significantly changed how we interact with each other and how we consume culture – theatre and the self-appointed theatre police still seem to think that audiences should adhere to antiquated rules and behaviour.

From verbal and physical abuse to ‘poogate’ – ushers reveal their worst experiences working front of house

Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner

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