Like most people involved in the arts, I have been following the debate about “acceptable behaviour in the theatre” with huge interest.
It’s a tricky one, isn’t it? How do we find the balance between encouraging a non-traditional audience to set foot inside a theatre, including making allowances for them not knowing ‘the (unwritten) rules’ and still keeping the theatre environment acceptable for those of us who want to immerse ourselves in the drama, without the distraction of our fellow theatregoers chattering, eating crisps and rustling sweet packets? How do we reconcile the hard financial fact that a fair proportion of a theatre’s income comes from snack and food sales while saying that selling crisps at the snack counter encourages the eating of noisy food in the auditorium? And why do we expect newly fledged theatregoers to understand that it is okay – encouraged – to give feedback in the form of vocal participation during some shows – the Rocky Horror Show, pantomime, Horrible Histories, even some Shakespeare – but not others?
I think that we need to start from the premise that people do actually want to ‘get it right’. No one wants to give offence by their behaviour. Yes, some theatregoers seem to have an immense sense of entitlement, but I still do not believe that they set out to upset everyone else around them. Maybe they just haven’t been told what they are – or aren’t – entitled to do. Shows can be very quick to tell audiences what they can do, but rarely tell them what they can’t.
I have recently attended performances of Cirque Berserk and Let It Be, both of which encouraged filming and sharing of footage. I then went to see some Chekhov, where the audience were, of course, told to switch off their mobile phone… but not why they had to be switched off. And I think that this is key.
A good proportion of the audience, particularly if they are relatively young, may not have an instinctive feel for why phones need to be absent. If a cast member could come on stage at the beginning, thereby emphasising the fact that this is a live performance, and spend a couple of minutes explaining that ringing and beeping phones disturb everyone, that they, as actors, own the ‘copyright’ of their performance and don’t want to give it away for free via filming of the show and that the glow of an active mobile phone is a huge distraction to everyone on stage (and elsewhere), people in the audience might more readily understand the issues.
Likewise, the eating of crisps/rustling of sweets. How do we really expect a generation of young people, who have been brought up to eat their meals around the TV, while multi-tasking on their phones and tablets, to instinctively understand that you don’t actually need to eat while watching something? Particularly when the snack counter beside the auditorium door is selling crisps and the bar actually provides glasses in which to take drinks into the auditorium? Double standards? Certainly a bit confusing. Maybe we just need the assistants at the snack counter to explain, with every sale, that snacks must be eaten front of house – and why – and ushers to reinforce this message if they see anyone trying to take food into the auditorium.
I truly believe that ‘bad behaviour’ is born from ignorance rather than from malicious intent and that communication is the answer. It can only be a good thing that our theatres are increasingly attracting non-traditional audiences; we can’t and we mustn’t expect to rely on the white, middle-class, middle-aged demographic to keep our theatres’ lights on – not in this era of funding cuts and stretched budgets.
Theatres need new audiences and they need to work out ways of welcoming them. I was touched – and hugely encouraged – by an encounter that I recently had at a theatre in the Midlands. Having a pre-matinee lunch with my family, I saw two young girls, probably in their 20s, standing uncertainly to one side and looking, frankly, frightened. I waited a few moments and then approached them. As I did so, one said to the other: “We need to go home. I don’t like this place.” As a professional access consultant (and as someone who also had never gone to the theatre as a child – it just wouldn’t have occurred to my parents to see a play) I had to get involved.
It turned out that they had travelled, on two buses, for 90 minutes, to get to the theatre, having done the same distance as a ‘dummy run’ the day before, so that they knew where it was. They were desperate to see the show – a musical starring a singer from The X Factor – and had booked tickets over the phone. One of them then started crying – she didn’t know what to do with her ticket or where to go. The tickets were for seats in the circle, but that meant absolutely nothing to her – “Was that just referring to the shape of the theatre?”
Obviously, I got them sorted and happy and I imagine that they had a wonderful afternoon. And I really, really hope that they come back, again and again. Maybe next time to another show starring a celebrity but, after that, maybe to a non-celebrity-led show. And these are the sort of people – non-traditional theatregoers, people who absolutely don’t ‘know the rules’, that we need to encourage. Not to scare off by openly disapproving of their ignorance, but explaining. And it needs to be the theatre management themselves who do the explaining. It shouldn’t be left to other audience members to complain or moan – that’s not fair on anyone.
As theatres increasingly work to attract new audiences by using celebrity leads and as, simultaneously, the cuts in arts education budgets mean that the next generation are less likely than ever to go to the theatre via a school trip, we need to appreciate the reasons for the misunderstandings that happen in an audience – and communicate better to minimise them. I am completely confident that this can be done; celebrity castings have brought a new era into our theatres – we just now need to manage it so that everyone has a good time.