What has happened to Theatre Etiquette?
Why has going to the theatre become so stressful lately? Or is it just me? I’ve been going to the theatre ever since my parents took my sister and me to see Cinderella at The London Palladium when we were very young girls. I can remember being in complete awe of the ornate surroundings and grandeur of the building and how everyone in the audience looked so posh, even if they weren’t. People were dressed in their finery for this theatrical occasion. Children were wearing their Sunday best and although my sister and I were quite overwhelmed with excitement at the thought of seeing Roger de Courcey and Nookie Bear, we were told to sit down, sit still and be quiet. Not in a strict fashion you understand, this was a pantomime after all, but in the way that parents expected their children to behave in those days when they were being taken out somewhere special and where we would be expected to set an example. Nowadays it would seem that those three simple requests are somewhat of a challenge to a small but sadly growing theatre-going minority; and even shows that aren’t pantomimes, seem to have the type of clientele that is befitting of one.
Now I completely understand that I am probably at that age where the little things can start to irritate; I’ll be the first one to admit that I am turning into a proper ‘grumpy old woman’ over many things but at a recent trip to the theatre to see Jersey Boys, my shackles were given cause to rise on more than one occasion. On finding my seat and settling down, it appeared that the woman in front of me obviously had a cold and had seemingly doused herself in some sort of Olbas Oil type concoction. The pong wafted over everyone within a foot of her every time she moved. Just before the show started I heard her telling her friend that she’d taken her shoes off, which seriously didn’t improve matters. Admittedly, she didn’t cough that much - that prize went to a lady further down in the stalls who probably would have benefited more from sitting where I was; but, seriously what could possibly possess someone to rub foul smelling ointment over themselves before going to the theatre?
So not off to a great start there and a slightly unusual scenario to be fair but later during the same performance we had people getting up in the middle of songs to go to the toilet, expecting everyone in their row to get up to let them out - a major distraction during any point of a show and not least during a heartfelt rendition of Fallen Angel, one of the emotional highlights of the show. Don’t get me started on the sweet wrappers and the loud whispering and people thinking it acceptable to loudly sing along to some of the songs. No, no no! This is just one evening folks. One evening where I am expected to write a review whilst sitting amongst all these distractions. I took my mum to see Jersey Boys again a week later and sat in the second row from the front and saw a completely different show. Mind you, even then two people got up during the show, I presume to go to the toilet, but the point is that I shouldn’t have to sit practically in the front row to not be distracted from the performance by other people’s rudeness. What has happened to theatre etiquette?
I wondered if it was just me - perhaps I am being over-sensitive and need to chill out a bit in my old age; but no, it would seem that quite a lot of you feel the same way. One friend, Linda, tells me that one of her biggest bugbears is people checking their mobile phones during a performance and even tweeting. The mobile phone seems to be the chief antagonist for us serious theatre goers, with many of us claiming that we have had to put up with phones ringing, people actually holding conversations during a performance, Tweeting, Facebooking, Instagraming, texting and all sorts of other mobile shenanigans. This, despite the ever present announcement at the beginning of a show asking all patrons to turn off their devices.
Another friend (and this has happened to me before) also told me how she sat and listened to a member of the audience narrate what was going to happen next or even quote lines that were coming up. This behaviour, theatre goers, (as far as I am aware) is only acceptable during The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Talking during a performance is also something that people cannot seem to refrain from. I mean, come on, what do you really need to talk about? Maybe at the end of a rousingly good song, one may be allowed a brief, “Oh wasn't that good” type conversation whilst clapping their approval but not during the song or even worse during a moment of tense emotional dialogue. It would seem that people are so used to sitting in front of their televisions and chatting to each other that they cannot disassociate themselves from something happening in a box in the corner of their lounge, to something that is happening live on a stage; something that cannot be paused and rewound if we need to go to the loo, grab a drink or feel the need to have a little discussion about an actor’s hair do or what they’re wearing.
Groups of people who have had too much to drink, school kids, slightly hard of hearing old folk and foreigners who have no idea what they have come to see but have no doubt been encouraged to see by their tour guide as part of their cultural experience of good old Blighty, seem to be the main culprits of the noisy chatter.
I recently sat next to an elderly lady who was using the hearing loop headset provided by the theatre to help her hear more clearly all that was being said on the stage. Such a good idea and thus preventing her from constantly asking her friend, “What did he say, Maude?” Mind you, it didn’t stop her from nodding off later on, which reminds me - the snorers seem to be quite commonplace these days, especially during an Agatha Christie matinee. I had one either side of me at an Alan Ayckbourn matinee a few weeks ago.
Just a thought but perhaps theatre companies could provide something for our excitable overseas visitors to read, such as a break down of each scene written in their own language that they can peruse before the show starts. This would at least give them an idea of what was happening, even if they couldn’t understand every word that was being said.
The biggest irritation and I think this is pretty much without exception, is the sweet wrapper, rustling, noisy eating scenario. It never ceases to amaze me how many people have the absolute need to noisily chomp their way through a show. You know, as kids my sister and me would have killed for a box of Maltesers at the theatre but aside from the fact that our parents always told us they weren’t going to pay five quid for something they could get in the corner shop for 50p (alright, it was the seventies!), I reckon the real reason they never got us sweets was because they knew we’d make too much noise. These days we have more than a rattling box of Maltesers to contend with - crisps, popcorn, big old packets of sweets, Haribos (ok they are non crunchy but the wrapper still makes a racket) and something that really gets my goat - the bottle of water that contracts every time someone takes a sip. Would these people be devouring this vast consumption of sweets if they were at home or elsewhere? I don't think so. Can they not make do without feeding their faces for a couple of hours? I’m sure with a tiny bit of willpower, they can hold themselves back from pulling apart the sweetie wrapper until the interval. I’ve never heard of an audience member collapsing from ‘lack of sweets’ during a show.
Now please don’t get me started on the latecomers, especially the ones who are late because they’ve insisted on buying an alcoholic beverage before they sit down. It seems that no matter where I sit, the latecomer is always the one sitting in front of me. And, usually to add insult to injury, they are the tallest person in the Kingdom and therefore rendering me to do the ‘which side shall I lean my head so as not to annoy the person behind me’ manoeuvre. Worse than the tall person, and again forcing you to tilt your head to one side, is the lovey dovey couple who cannot keep their heads apart throughout the show. I had a couple in front of me just last week where the man had his arm around the lady, which was nice - don’t get me wrong - but his elbow was pointing at my chest for the whole night. A distraction I could have done without frankly.
It’s not just members of the audience who become disgruntled at this rude behaviour; June, who works in the theatre told me that she has had to deal with clientele who think they don’t have to show their tickets in order to get to their seats because they know where they are going, even though they quite often don’t. She has also had to put up with people who continue to hold a conversation with each other when she’s trying to tell them how to get to their seats. Alice, who also works at the same theatre, says that she often has to deal with rude people but fortunately they are in the minority. Most people want to come and enjoy a show but sadly it only takes one or two to spoil an evening for others.
Theatre etiquette rapidly seems to be diminishing and I find this so very sad. Obviously I don’t expect women to start dressing up in ballgowns and for men to wear cravats, in fact what people wear really doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I would just like people to respect the fact that there are actors up there on the stage, who have worked hard at their craft, have spent hours rehearsing and are putting on a show for an audience that, in the majority, want to go out and enjoy a fabulous evening’s entertainment. Let’s face it, going to the theatre isn’t cheap these days, especially if you are in the West End. Why spend all that money just to go and have a chat, get drunk and eat sweets?
Ultimately it’s all about respect. Respect for the performers, respect for the management of the theatre, respect of live theatre and ultimately respect for each other.
Kim Tobin (2015)