How to improve theater-going manners in your audience.

I got an email from a passionate yet disgruntled theatergoer recently who told me that several of her recent show-going experiences were marred by not-so-polite audience members who texted, gabbed, ate, etc. their way through the performance.

I’m sure we all can relate.

It wasn’t always this way.  Theatergoing manners (like manners in general) have been on the decline over the past 20-30 years.  It used to be that in addition to a certain expected dress from audience members (which I still advocate), there was a certain way to behave.

And, as our audience expanded, and our ability to sit still has waned, some manners have gone out the window.

So what do we do about it?  Do we scold and snob-out, spanking those that act-up and tell them they’re not welcome in our hallowed theatrical houses?

Well, that’s the easy way, and it would also be the wrong way.

Remember, on Broadway anyway, we’ve got some attendance issues, so we have to make sure we aren’t pushing people away from going to the theater.  And frankly, there are some things we may never change (as much as I’d like to see people dress up for the theater again . . . in 2013, comfort wins out . . . like  it won out when people stopped dressing up for flights).

But there are things we can do.  Movies have had similar issues with talking and the like (demonstrating that this is a societal issue, not one unique to the theater), and they added “Please don’t talk during the movie” pre-roll to their films years ago.

We don’t have trailers, so we have to get a little more creative.  And let’s face it, no one, from a kid to an adult likes to be told they have to “behave,” so the task at hand is a hard one.  But here are some ideas:

  • Create a standardized (and Broadway League approved) Top Ten list of theater etiquette (But maybe call it “How to Best Enjoy Your Theatergoing Experience”) and put this in every Playbill on Broadway.  Oh, and then try to pass it around to other theaters as well.  If it’s identical everywhere, it’ll take firmer root.  (You can also slip it into ticket envelopes as well – wherever and whenever, but get it out.)
  • Manners stick when they are taught early.  Anyone running a children’s theater, should spend five minutes before each show teaching their juvenile audiences how to politely watch the theater, so that they don’t grow up to be juvenile delinquent theater goers.
  • If you have access to your customer’s email addresses (which unfortunately we don’t on Broadway without paying), send them a message on the day of the performance, including an etiquette list above.
  • Etiquette is also contagious. Train your staff, box office, managers, and so on to treat everyone like they are attending a “proper” event and you’ll see your audience’s attitude change as well.  Don’t you act differently when you walk in a library or a museum?
  • Is your theater clean and pristine?  Broken Windows theory is a real thing.  People act according to the surroundings that they are in.  If you treat your space with more respect, people will treat it and everything inside it with more respect as well.
  • Install ejector seats?

This is a toughie.  It’s a problem that we’re never going to eradicate, but we can improve.

What are some of your ideas on how we can improve theatergoing etiquette?  Comment them below, and maybe we all can join the fight in improving theater manners.  Because when the experience of going to the theater is a more pleasurable one, people just may come back more often.  (And maybe I’ll go ahead and create that Top Ten List I mentioned above myself for a future blog post.)


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  • Jeff says:

    You should have a Twitter account being monitored during the show, and if someone is online, I can get my phone out and send their location in a tweet to… Hmm, I think I found a problem with my theory. 😉

  • richard rizzo says:

    Turn around and say in a low but firm voice: Please stop that.

  • Brian says:

    Is there technology that can block cell phone and texting signals? If so install it in all theaters. When I saw Newsies 7 girls looking to be 14-17 years old were texting/tweeting during the first act. I would have gladly paid an additional fee to hear prior to the show: Your cell is in operable during the show. Please let Ashley and your other friends know how great the show is AFTER THE SHOW NOT DURING IT!

  • Robert Laurita says:

    The Smith Center in Las Vegas has trained their staff very well. They also have an etiquette list like the one you speak of in their program.

    I had low expectations for Vegas but they prove me wrong each time I go. The ushers know exactly what to do if someone takes out a phone or takes a picture. I go often and it happens less now than when they first opened. You are right, Ken. Train them early!

  • Beki says:

    I was recently in a production of The Hobbit and we did some school shows where local teachers bring their classes to see a shortened edition of the show. Most of the kids were great. My biggest problem was with the teachers. They were so busy “monitoring” the kids that is cause a distraction. In one of the shows, the kids would laugh where they were supposed to laugh and the teachers would shush them. It was awful!

  • Kerry says:

    My friend Ceris wrote a great post about theatre etiquette, specifically for parents (you mentioned wanting to start them young!):

  • Mike says:

    Theater, like every other form of art, changes. Likewise, the way that an audience views theater changes and has consistently. There are definitely things that land on my list of rude, but no one should be in the business of governing the way people enjoy art. TV encourages its viewers to tweet and talk during their programs, so much so that it has become hardwired into many people’s approach to viewing. If theater cannot adapt to its viewers, why should they adapt to theater?

    And if a theater emails me a list of etiquette before a show, You can be damn well sure I will be asking for a refund.

    • Liz says:

      Because if you’re doing it at home while you’re watching television, you’re not disrupting anyone else’s experience. The glow of a phone screen when a fellow audience member is using it during a show is incredibly distracting to those around him or her.

    • Frank says:

      Mike, the premise of your posting is ridiculous. Your last statement is so utterly ridiculous, I’m not sure why I’m compelled to reply – and almost a year later.

      If eating, tweeting, talking and pooping while watching TV are acceptable in the households you are invited into, then wonderful! But PUBLIC places where other patrons have shelled out their good MONEY is NOT a place where you get to purposely infringe on others enjoyment of the show by eating, tweeting, talking, pooping or whatever rude behavior suits YOU!

  • I’m a performer and I like feedback from my audience. Even if it’s negative. I’d prefer that they let me know if they really hated something I did. So, I know it’s rebellious of me, but if someone is paying upwards of $60 for a ticket they should be allowed to dress and act in whatever way they please as long as they don’t completely ruin the night for anyone else.

  • Kathleen Smith says:

    The last time I attended a performance at the Kennedy Center, there was a section in the equivalent of the Playbill about how to behave in the theater during the performance. As my last trip there was at least three years ago, I do not remember exactly what was listed. Perhaps something can be put in the Playbills or posted in the theater although it may not help. I have turned to people and asked them to be quiet. I have told others they can purchase my ticket, face value, and I will leave if they want to talk. I have glared at a young woman so hard, she left. I am in the theater to list to what is on the stage, not other people’s conversation or other noise. I sometimes get the earphones to help block out other noise. I have complained to ushers at intermission. All I ask is the other attendees be polite.

  • Paul Argentini says:

    You’re looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

    Ever watch grade school kids sitting slack-jawed listening to an exciting tale?

    Ever once get shushed in your own home so a news bulletin could be heard?

    Ever hear a cough during a heart-wrenching aria in an opera?

    Good material gets half-ass attention. Great material gets undivided attention.

    Writers—Broadway, Hollywood—are treated like auntie’s mistakes.

    Give wannabe writers a sandbox where they can play and succeed or become wise.

    Give the journeymen writers with the art and who spent ten years learning the craft the venue for strutting their stuff. Support them with bucks, not bafflegab, and pay them to come up with the good stuff. A great script works just like fly paper—you can’t get away from it no matter how hard you try. Do it, with hard-written checks and no one will care if the Emperor wears old or new clothes.

    • I really agree with you, Paul! The writing is truly paramount – if it’s riveting, nothing else CAN distract an audience’s attention. But there’s so little support for writers – and so much bad writing continuing to get produced, I think due to the continuing pressure of no-risk producing.

  • Everett O'Neil says:

    At a recent performance, a couple from “out of town” sat next to me. As soon as they did, the woman took off her boots AND her socks and sat indian style in the seat. I turned to her and jokingly said, “That’s all you are going to take off, right?” she said yes and put her socks back on. I thought it was a good way to say that maybe her actions weren’t appropriate and she got it. Sometimes you don’t have to scream at someone to have them get the point.

  • Alex French says:

    I think a lot of it comes down to “respect is a two way street” OR “the kids these days are all punks, inside of the theatre or not…”. The second, we can’t do anything about, so the first…

    Do your shows start precisely on time? If not (whether because of convention or things being run sloppily), you’ve broken your first explicit agreement with the audience. You’re now encouraging people to show up late, and starting the night by showing you don’t respect the folks who were in their seats at the published curtain time.

    Do you have “cheap seats”? If there are many seats (not just a tiny fraction on the edges) that have poor sightlines because of the design of the theatre itself or the set and blocking, or that have obviously lower quality audio… then you’re creating an implicit agreement with your audience that they should behave like people in cheap seats. If your theatre seats more than ~1,000 (e.g. larger road houses that tours pass through, more than most Broadway theatres), you’re putting seats far enough away from the stage that it can’t possibly feel like live theatre anymore, and it would be foolish to expect a lot of those people not to behave like they’re at a sporting event or pop concert.

    Tangentially related… the opening line mentioned “… ate their way through the performance”. If a theatre sells concessions, it would be insane not to expect this. By selling food you’re setting up an obvious expectation that it will be eaten, and trying to quibble about when and how loudly is ridiculous.

  • Gail Mrozak says:

    My new favorite is one I encountered at a fund-raiser concert a few months ago. Pre-recorded messages, broadcast over the speaker system, while the audience was seating itself:

    “Tonight’s concert features American music from the early 1900’s. Back in the early 1900’s, no one had cell phones. To have a truly authentic experience, please silence your phone now.”

    “To enjoy the concert, please refrain from using your phone or texting. You can do that while driving home.”

    A little humor certainly helps.

  • Solange De Santis says:

    Do producers have any leverage with theater owners? In some Broadway houses, going to the theater now resembles being treated like cattle going into the chute. We are yelled constantly at by the ushers – “have your tickets out!” “Step to the side!” – before and after the show and at intermission. (On line for the ladies’ room – “Form a line on this side!” “Move over to the left!”) At the Richard Rodgers Theater, we’re told we can’t even wait in the lobby. At “Once,” the charming innovation of allowing the audience onstage for a pre-show pub is marred by the typical officious stage manager. (I took a pic of my daughter enjoying the ambiance and intended to post to my FB page to say how great the show was. And no, I wouldn’t think of taking out my phone or taking a picture during the show.) At “Godspell,” I had a pic taken during intermission onstage of me and Danny Goldstein and nobody came over to tell me I couldn’t do it. Theater staff – act like you’re welcoming me to a special and glamorous event on which I have just dropped big bucks, not like you’re shoving me on an amusement park ride.

  • Diana says:

    I am going to preface this by saying not only am I an avid theatre patron, but I am also an Usher on the Great White Way. I am on the younger side, so, sadly I was not here during the Golden age of Broadway. Going to a show meant dressing to the nines and handing your mind over over for at least an hour and a half. True, they did not have cell phones back then, but I am sure there was still a sense of common decency.

    One item that seems to be missing here is that texting/talking/playing with your iPad is not just disruptive to your fellow audience members. Those performers on stage have spent MONTHS working on and perfecting their show. Upwards of eight times a week, they pour their heart and soul onto to stage. The house is dark for a reason. Your attention should be focused on the show you paid money to see. The people on stage can see you when you open up your phone. As an example: at one of my performances last week, someone was playing poker on their electronic device during the show. This was seen from the stage, was brought to our attention by the SM, and was immediately taken care of.

    Yes, it is exciting to see a show. I would be lying if I said I never mentioned it on Facebook or Twitter when I go. Every time I walk into a theater, the moment I sit down, I shut off, not silence, my phone. I give myself over to the experience. I paid a fair amount of money to see the show and that phone does not get turned back on until I walk out the doors. It is very exciting to see a Broadway show, or any stage performance for that matter, however there is no reason why your tweet or status update or whatever can’t wait until intermission or after the show.

    I agree with Mr. Davenport. There should be a “10 Commandments of attending a performance”. There should also be a golden rule: Respect your fellow patrons (for they too paid a lot of money to be here) and the performers on stage (for they worked very hard to create this experience for you) by not talking or using electronic devices throughout the remainder of the show. That picture of your dinner can wait.

    I also agree with the ejector seats.

  • Alan Langguth says:

    Does it occur more in shows that the show itself is more relaxed? Seems to me that the more a show looks like reality the audience is also more likely to behave badly.

    I like the idea of publishing a list of “Patron Do’s and Don’ts” and also making an announcement ahead of the show. Those of us who have had to sit through a wonderful show only to have the experience ruined by another audience member can surely relate to that method.

    Oh one last thing, it’s not only the young people… my last going out was ruined by an elderly woman who decided that it was a sing along!

  • CJ says:

    A few days ago we were at THE TESTAMENT OF MARY, a gripping one-woman show with the indefatigable Fiona Shaw giving her all in tones loud and hushed. OK, I can stand the older man and woman yelling that their enhancement headsets aren’t working. But right in the middle of the crucifixion, a phone in front of us went off. One of those long, generic marimba tones and she actually looked at the incoming number and let the thing ring itself out. Just AWFUL. Shushing and chiding only creates more of a distraction — you hope they’re mortified and apologetic.

    But that wasn’t enough for her. As Mary was escaping the Romans, it went off a SECOND time. I mean how simple-minded and rude do you have to be to do this to a paying audience? The ushers had paced the aisles before the show, asking the audience about 30 times to turn the phones off. What arrogance to ignore them!

    Several people complained and the ushers said next time a phone goes off, they may unleash the vulture.

    I’d prefer such offenders be ejected from the production, no questions, no refund. They are literally public nuisances.

  • Donald Sanborn III says:

    Ken, I like your last one! : )

    you mentioned that, unlike the theater, movies have trailers. I think you’re onto something.

    First of all, I’d like to see Overtures come back into vogue. For one thing, it’s a chance for the instrumentalists to shine, and it’s something obvious to pull out and do on variety shows. More important, it’s a chance for the audience to get their minds off the real world and get psyched up to enjoy what they’re about to see and hear. I know some shows have overtures, but I’d like to see them a lot more common again. Some directors and choreographers feel like they have to give the audience something visual to look at every second of stage time; as an audience member, I think that’s a mistake–and as a composer, I plan to compose overtures for any show I write.

    Following your trailer idea more closely: in Victorian times, there would be what would called a Curtain Raiser, a short, light work for the audience to enjoy ahead of the main production. I note that you’re judging a ten-minute play contest. Why not let the winner be an opening act for one of your productions? Bands and singers have opening acts for their concerts, why can’t we do that in theater? One could even follow the trailer idea literally and have performers do selected moments from another play or musical (or, in the case of musicals, just have a performer sing a song from that show, sort of like Broadway on Broadway.)

    Finally, back to your audience education idea: when I was in college, there was a dining etiquette course available, and the reward for attending was a free (fancy) meal. Could free or discounted tickets be a reward for attending a theater etiquette course, perhaps thirty minutes before curtain?

    I’m all for educating the audience on etiquette, and for the record I like to dress up for the theater. But can we do more to transition the audience from their lives to the show? Yes, and I suggest the above ideas as a place to start.

  • Donald Sanborn III says:

    One last thing: there’s something to be said, I think, for other audience members not tolerating rude behavior. My wife and I saw “The Mikado” by the NY G&S Players, and these people behind me were gabbing for the first five minutes! I turned around, glared at them, and said “sh!” I remember the talking at least lessening after that, and I think being checked on their behavior (something they probably weren’t used to) stunned them into silence!

    Finally, an anecdote: some years ago, I attended a cabaret concert by a well-known Broadway performer. During her act, she noticed that one member of the audience had his head in his hands, and looked like he was asleep. The singer strode to his table and said, “do you have a headache? Pay attention!”

  • Ray Quirolgico says:

    Love, love, love this idea. What I appreciate about the theater is that it is a worldview-changing experience, which is lifelong education at its best. The “At This Theatre” column does that: it gives me a sense of history and resilience. I have long thought that there could be more formal education by simple passive means, and lessons in the Playbills or communicated in visual displays can certainly help teach people not only etiquette, but the reason and rationale for such etiquette. We can and should elevate our cultural expectations as often as possible.

  • Jane Cleland says:

    I agree wholeheartedly, but offer one comment. People stopped dressing up for flights when riding an airplane became as ordinary as riding a bus. If a theatrical experience becomes a commodity, like a ride on a city bus, then people’s manners inevitably degenerate. If we can boost the theatrical experience into something precious, to be cherished, manners will improve accordingly.

  • Doug says:

    Here’s a theater etiquette problem I’ve run into a few times that I don’t really know how to handle. Have you ever had a total stranger sitting next to you or behind or in front of you who falls asleep during the performance and then snores loudly? I’ve encountered this a few times, and it’s embarrassing – you want them to stop snoring so you can hear the play, but it is awkward to poke or prod or even touch a total stranger. Any suggestions?

  • George Rady says:

    It might have already been mentioned…

    But I attended a production of “The Rivals” in Baltimore and they had an actor come out early, hang around on stage, not take notice of the audience, we were already running a littel late.. he seemed to want to start the play… but got a Cell Phone call… “Yeah, No, go ahead, I’m not busy… etc”

    Maybe Broadway needs to go thru a PSA (“TSA?” Yikes!!!) where all the theatres start with a rude “actor” demonstarting what NOT to do… for a while… and make it funny but biting… embarrassing anyone who subsequently practices what was preached… ’til the Idea sinks in…

    Though “Common Courtesy” is rarely common…

  • George Rady says:

    Or we could do a “Goofus and Gallant” skit… when “Goofus” goes to the Theatre etc.

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  • Larry Weaver says:

    I like how you mention that theater etiquette is contagious. While training staff to have good etiquette sounds incredibly useful in getting the audience to have good etiquette as well, I think that if members of the audience are already trying their best to have good manners, others around them will also adjust. My son needs to go to a show for a homework assignment, so I’ll do my best to have a good etiquette so that my son can have a chance to develop these skills as well.

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