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Audiences Behaving Badly

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Have theatre audiences slipped into bad habits post-pandemic?

Audiences Behaving Badly

We know that there is an etiquette when watching a theatrical performance, but in the past 18 months many of us have grown used to watching all our entertainment solely on a screen where chatting about the performance, eating loudly and getting up mid-speech is the norm. It seems that some of this behaviour may have drifted into our theatres. Or was it ever thus?

Social media is currently awash with performers lamenting poor audience behaviour. Carrie Hope Fletcher, currently in Cinderella, has noted that audience members have messaged her to ask for a refund when she wasn't in the show. Lauren Samuels, recently appearing in Groan Ups, vented her frustration on Twitter at a group in the front row eating and scrolling on their phones: "We see you VERY clearly and it hurts our feelings."

Famously, Patti LuPone took matters into her own hands during her Broadway performance of Shows For Days when she saw a woman texting throughout the first act, grabbing the phone from her hand - to the delight of the rest of the audience.

When Benedict Cumberbatch was performing Hamlet at the Barbican, he stopped the show to directly appeal to the audience to stop filming him. Imelda Staunton once called for a ban on all food in the theatre, and signs went up at the Harold Pinter Theatre while she was in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? asking audiences not to eat.

It's fair to say that theatre reviewers go to the theatre more than most and, due to this, we have all seen behaviour from the audience that ranges from eyebrow-raising to barely credible. So is this an increasing problem, or should we be wary of throwing up more barriers to potential theatregoers? That debate rages on.

Eating and drinking

Many of us look forward to a drink or an ice cream at the theatre and it's a fact that theatres rely on the revenue from drinks and snacks - but where do we draw the line?

Emma Watkins recalls watching a show while someone with a box of Maltesers rattled the box during all the quiet sections. "It's a flat, single layer box of Maltesers - it's not as if they had to look for hidden ones." She also remembers a strange sight at The Book of Mormon where "someone in the front row came into the theatre with a box of hot chicken and proceeded to munch through it during the first couple of songs."

I remember vividly a production of Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce where a group of older ladies brought a complete picnic to the show, including flasks of tea, smoked salmon sandwiches and linen napkins to lay on their laps with slices of cake. Sweet, but incredibly distracting.

Well-oiled patrons are also an increasingly frequent sight. At a recent revival of Rock of Ages, a drunk woman consistently shouted out at the action on the stage. When ushers came to ask her to move at the interval, she fell flat on her face as she tried to get up.

Inappropriate behaviour

Theatre etiquette is not written down anywhere, but most of us have an idea of what, generally speaking, is suitable in a theatre and what is not.

Watkins remembers "a couple next to me loudly snogging the faces off one another, ruining a particularly moving song. I was too chicken to say anything, occasionally tutted but they took notice. A fellow theatregoer sat behind told them to get a room or watch the show. They left in the interval."

While she was covering one of the Wicked birthday shows, Fiona Scott was sitting "among the 'celebrities' in the stalls. Someone a few seats away from me spectacularly spilled their popcorn all down themselves and along our row during Act I, disappeared to the bar during the interval and when they returned, they told off the nearest usher for not clearing it up in their absence!"

Natalie O'Donoghue and I have seen identical behaviour at the same show, which was members of the audience of Dirty Dancing "trying to literally rip the clothes off the actor playing Johnny when he ran through the auditorium." There does seem to be something about this production, in particular, that turns groups of middle-aged women into shrieking leches who would not be tolerated if they were men behaving in the same way.

Gary Naylor's pet hate is people who leave glasses on the floor. "First it's bloody rude to the staff, who've had a rough enough time recently, and secondly, other people kick them over as they're edging past the seats trying to get out." Being of the taller persuasion, Naylor is always conscious of who might be sitting behind him. I for one, at less than five foot two inches, wish that others were so considerate; a towering woman sat in front of me once with a huge Stetson on her head that she did not think it was appropriate to remove. I changed seats at the interval.

Mobile phones

We live an era where phones are integral to every moment in some people's lives, but for cast and crew, mobile phones going off mid-performance must be the most frustrating and frequent issue. Despite the fact that we are reminded at every performance to turn them off, the message never gets through to everyone.

Watkins recalls "someone whose mobile went off in their handbag and they tried to smother the sound (rather ineffectually) rather than get it out and shut it up; it merely prolonged the agony. And kind of ruined the tension of the play!"

The other issue is vibrations: everyone can hear the buzzing coming from your seat. Everyone!

Photography and audience Interaction

There are certain shows such as Cirque du Soleil and SIX that actively encourage photography and shows like The Rocky Horror Picture Show that would love you to join the singalong. However, it's fair to say that the majority of productions don't want their copyright breached and their performers interrupted by people taking photos, nor do they expect the audience to treat the show like a giant karaoke session.

Anthony Walker-Cook challenged a man taking photos The Twilight Zone, who justified his actions by saying that he wasn't recording anything!

Tim Wright remembers while watching "Who Am I?" during a performance of Les Miserables, "a lady in front turned to her partner and asked loudly "What would you do in that situation?". Not the time guys, not the time...

At a performance of Thriller Live, O'Donoghue saw an audience member filming the full show holding an iPad above their head.

Watkins also recalls an old lady coming back from the loo at a cabaret-style show who couldn't find her seat and her husband, so called out to the act on stage for help to find them!

Masks

As contentious as ever, masks are not compulsory anymore inside a theatre, but every production I have attended since we were allowed back inside theatres has asked if patrons would wear them. Unfortunately, it seems that fewer and fewer people want to do so and mask-wearing is a dying thing. What is interesting is that the smaller venues seem to have a much better rate of adherence; in my very recent visits to both the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre and the small Orange Tree Theatre, about 99% of the audience were masked.

It's frustrating that there is no consensus across the industry, and that patrons who might be fearful of returning are put off by the comparatively lax measures at some venues - particularly in the West End. It's understandable that commercial theatre is eager to get full-capacity crowds back in and having a good time after a ruinous 18 months, but if an outbreak is linked to a theatre, that will have terrible consequences in the longer term.

How do we find a good balance?

Most people buy theatre tickets as a treat and they are often expensive. There are bargains to be had, but even a £15 ticket costs more than a monthly Netflix subscription, so it seems strange that people would prefer to chat or check their Instagram feed rather than concentrate for a couple of hours on a production.

I don't believe that any performer wants an audience to just sit in silence and it is a glorious thing when we experience that synergy where a performance and its audience are totally aligned. We also need to attract diverse and new audiences to our theatres and cannot give the impression to newcomers that we have strict rules and regulations.

History records incredibly raucous theatre audiences - from the stages of Ancient Greece to Shakespeare's Elizabethan times; quiet and polite audiences are a relatively new thing. But theatre performances can often be a type of unique magic, produced from the hard work of so many people on stage and behind the scenes. Fundamentally, our behaviour as an audience should boil down to one thing: respect.

What bad behaviour have you seen in the theatre? And should there be more rules right now? Let us know what you think! Tweet us @BroadwayWorldUK


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