top of page

Whatever Happened To Theatre Etiquette?

Theatre etiquette - words that will strike fear into any theatre lover. Those words will always trigger memories to each individual that has ever experienced the wrong side of it. It seems you can't go to a show these days without hearing horror stories about what other audience members have done. Inspired by some posts I'd seen on various Facebook groups in recent weeks, I put a tweet out earlier asking if anyone had any stories on bad theatre etiquette? The floodgates well and truly opened with hundreds of replies in just a few hours. It clearly has touched a nerve with a lot of people and, indeed, caused differences of opinion.

Bad theatre etiquette isn't a new thing, but has it got worse since theatres re-opened?

And at what point do we have a right to say something about it? I'm going to try to make sense of it all, and recite some stories that strike fear into my very soul.

So what exactly is theatre etiquette? Essentially, it is knowing how to behave in the theatre. This can have a danger of seeming elitist, but if you know how to behave in other places, surely theatre should have the basics spelt out for everyone? For example, you don't go to a strangers house, kick off your shoes and scratch yourself on their couch, do you? At least I hope not.

The most common cases of bad theatre etiquette involve audience members talking incessantly, making excessive noise through some questionable choices of food (Seriously, can't you find sweets that DON'T rustle? Or at the very least, wait until the interval) and an increased use of people checking their phones. One reason I prefer sitting in the stalls at shows than any of the circles is when I'm higher up I can see every single person checking their phone and it can be infuriating. Recently, at the reopening night of The Lion King, I was incredibly distracted by a woman at the front of the stalls who spent ALL of the show scrolling through her phone. What's the point in even going to the theatre to do that?

There are certain shows that seem to be worse than others. I can either love or hate Mamma Mia depending on how many drunk hens are in screeching along, more tunelessly than an X Factor reject. Jukebox musicals and movie musicals can attract the worst - with the latter sometimes inviting people who think they're clever shouting out the iconic lines. We've all seen the movie, Karen. Keep your trap shut!

It does seem to be getting worse though. You would have hoped that theatres being closed for 18 months might have made people appreciate it a lot more, but nope. As early as the first shows reopening in May, I witnessed people in the audiences of show act as though they couldn't care less about what was going on in front of them. This really boggles my mind as I made it my mission to never take a show for granted again, and five months later I have stayed true to my word - always appreciating how special it is to be sat in a full theatre again and being thankful to everybody who has made it happen.

The replies to my tweet were really eye-opening. From not only people checking their phones but actually answering them and taking phonecalls during the show, people eating full on takeaways, drunk hen nights. You name it, it's happened. This reply had to be my favourite though:

So why are people seemingly acting worse now than before the pandemic? My theory is all the time we spent at home during the lockdowns made a lot of people forget how to act in public. I have seen for myself and heard stories from others more than ever of people taking off their shoes and socks in the theatre and putting their bare feet on other peoples seats. I found my head next to someone's revolting feet at Mary Poppins several months ago. When the lady innocently told me she was just resting her feet, I told her exactly why it was not ok. Perhaps people needed a refresher course in how to act around other people?

So is it fair to be annoyed by other peoples bad theatre etiquette and at what point do you say something to then? To me, yes it is very fair to be annoyed. I go to the theatre for pure escapism and the smallest thing can take me out of the moment. So many times I have been in a truly beautiful moment in a show only to be taken out of it by some selfish person making it about them. I find it incredibly inconsiderate, to be perfectly blunt. No matter how much you have paid for the ticket, other people around you have paid too. You don't know their circumstances and so to potentially ruin their night through your own actions is the very worst of humanity.

Now of course there are exceptions to the rule. Children don't always know better but in those cases, I would expect the parents to tell them what is and isn't ok. At a show recently, I heard the woman behind me teach her kid what is and isn't acceptable in the theatre. Heartwarming at first... until she proved to be noiser than the kid. I do find that adults are much worse than the kids - especially when they've had a drink and forget what is and isn't acceptable. Of course there are other exceptions like people with health conditions that might affect their ability to stay still or stay quiet - more shows are doing relaxed performances now which is lovely for those that may feel self-conscious about going to a show otherwise.

I do have a habit of telling people to be quiet at shows, or telling them when they are doing something inappropriate. Sometimes they don't realise what they're doing and stop, sometimes they get extremely argumentative. So should audience members put themselves in that position? Should it be down to the FOH staff? In a perfect world, but they can't always see what's happening, can't always get to the people and sometimes might worry for their safety. I'd love to see audience members at shows adopt a "See it, say it, sort it" approach and have more people be brave to tell their fellow audience members to show respect for the people on that stage and the people around them in the audience. Somehow I feel like I'm living in a fantasy world with that wish though.

So what's the solution here? Ideally, theatres should set their ground rules out from the beginning - as it may be a case of people genuinely not knowing what is and isn't acceptable, though in some instances it is just a case of them being utter dicks. We already get pre-show speeches about turning your phones off and keeping quiet but maybe these could be even more obvious, as ironically people miss them if they're on their phone. I would love to see audience members called out for breaking the golden rules of theatre - in extreme cases they will get removed, but more times than not they will just get away with it. Maybe we should just employ Patti LuPone to patrol audiences at every theatre nightly and call out people doing anything wrong - that ought to scare them!

The problem is if we don't say something, it's just going to get worse. And it's not just confined to theatre only. I went to the cinema yesterday and let me tell you, THAT was an experience - with the people next to me making more noise than James Bond blowing things up on screen! Unfortunately we seem to live in a world where more and more people care only about their own needs and not the people around them, and feel nothing about ruining the experience for their fellow audience members.

With that, I present to you my guide to good theatre etiquette. Perhaps this should become a major ad campaign? It would be more productive than Fatima retraining in Cyber at least:

So what's your stance on the matter? Let me know in the comments or at as this is a matter that definitely brings out the mot opinionated of people. And for a look at the incredible replies to my original tweet, click here


bottom of page