Theatre Etiquette (Part Three) – The Audience

Posted on 23 July 2015

In my last blog, we established the Interval Theatre Etiquette. But what about before and after the interval – whilst you are actually in the auditorium, watching a performance? You might not immediately think of this as the time during which theatre etiquette most needs to be established, but think back: how many times have you been sandwiched between the person who won't stop talking and the person who is eating popcorn with unnatural vigour, with people coming in late just in front of you? Of all the theatrical situations with which we Thespians are faced, it could well be that the auditorium itself is the place that is most in need of some etiquette fine-tuning. So what exactly is the etiquette for an audience member?

What to Wear?

This seems to be a surprisingly divisive topic for theatre-goers. There are those who are more than happy to wear very casual clothes to the theatre, and then there are those who campaign against, for example, jeans and trainers; should we have to dress up to go to the theatre?
The wish to dress up before going to the theatre is very understandable – it marks an occasion and, arguably, helps to maintain the authentic nature of live shows; a theatre full of smart people does hold a certain ambience. Would we feel less enveloped in such an atmosphere is everyone was dressed-down?
The other side of the argument is that, if people are paying to see a show, they should be able to wear what they want to it. Why should people feel as though they have to wear something different just because somebody else is looking fancy? Not only that – it might be necessary to wear more practical clothing in some situations. For example: if you are going to London for the day and seeing a show in the evening, you are hardly going to want to spend the whole time in smart clothes.
At the end of the day, what to wear has to be put down to personal choice. The Etiquette, then, should surely be to put no pressure on other audience members with regards to dressing-up / dressing-down. Do your own thing, and let everybody else do theirs.


Latecomers can be a real pain. When you are engrossed in a performance and suddenly everyone has to shuffle out of the way to let a group of people in who simply didn't get to the theatre in time, it is easy to become frustrated. Ideally, the etiquette is: don't be late.
However, sometimes being late is unavoidable. You might have left with a copious amount of time on your hands, and been delayed by any manner of unforeseen events. I was once very nearly late to a show because the only car park remotely near the theatre was full, due to another event going on nearby. Mishaps will inevitably happen; the question then becomes what to do when you turn up late.
Trying to be unnoticeable is probably not going to work. If you're lucky, you might be able to sit in an easily accessible seat until the interval – in which case, it is worth trying to slip in without distrusting other audience members at all. But, more often than not, you will have no choice but to shimmy past other audience members in order to get to your seat. If this is the case, there is no point at all in ducking slightly and shuffling slowly as though that will make you less visible – accept that half of the audience is going to be looking and you and perhaps a quarter will be tutting; aim instead for speed. Walk briskly and sit down as quickly as possible. Apologise to the people next to you and offer them chocolate.


To Talk, or Not To Talk –

That is the question. Usually, the answer is not to talk. If you find yourself about to whisper to the person next to you, ask yourself the following questions and, if any of the answers are 'yes', desist:
Can it wait until the interval / after the show?
Is what I am about to say completely uninteresting?
Will lots of people hear what I say, other than the person to whom I will be saying it? (Is it a quiet bit of the show?)
Will it take long for me to say what I want to say?
Am I incapable of whispering?
If the answer to all of the above questions is a definite 'no', you can probably get away with a quick whisper to the person next to you.


To Eat, or Not To Eat –

That is not the question. The question is what to eat. Some foods are perfectly acceptable – chocolates; fudge; sweets that are not individually wrapped. Some foods simply make too much noise – popcorn; crisps; sweets that are individually wrapped. Save food items from the latter group for the interval or for after the show.
There is, of course, a grey area: biscuit based chocolates; very chewy sweets (toffee, for example); things in crinkly packets. That I leave to your judgement – if the show is, on the whole, loud, you might be able to get away with discreetly enjoying such foods, but you might find that in a small theatre and a quiet show, it is simply not possible. It is, however, always better to be on the safe side; if in doubt, eat it in the interval.
Note: nobody is suggesting that you don't eat these foods at all; it is simply a case of when to eat them.
Even if you are sticking steadily to 'safe' foods, there are certain things that you might as well do in order to minimise disturbance: open packets before the show starts; make the most of noisy bits; stop eating during very quiet / very tense bits.
But fear not – it is perfectly within the bounds of Theatre Etiquette to eat during a show, as long as you take precautions.


The Applause

I feel the need to reiterate what I said in my last blog (The Interval) – never ever leave without properly applauding. It doesn't matter whether you are bursting for the toilet, in a hurry to put to use your newly learnt Interval Etiquette, or rushing to catch a train; there is no excuse. It is an etiquette abomination.
Note: in my opinion, this rule is the most important of all, and I think I am beginning to develop a nervous twitch when people leave before applauding. Please, do not be the cause of this twitch.

One more thing: enjoy the show!