Don't Upstage: Theater Etiquette for Beginners

Categories: Stage

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Photo by Flickr user Aleksandr Zykov
Since theater season is well upon us, I thought I'd take a page from my Museum Etiquette for Beginners post, and ask some friends for tips for those new to the theater scene as audience members. This time of year is an especially good time in Houston for people new to staged performances to dip a toe in, with works like The Nutcracker at Houston Ballet and A Christmas Carol at Alley Theatre providing easy entry. There's even The Alley's The Santaland Diaries for those looking to branch out from "traditional" theater without getting all Godot all over everyone.

I talked to actors, theater employees, volunteers and long-time lovers of the stage to find out the Dos and Don'ts of being a member of the audience. Here are their answers:

Respect the Timeline

Arrive early enough to park and find your seats, especially if your tickets are waiting at will call. This is especially important if you're having dinner before the show. I am not a wine drinker, but one of the things that makes theater-going feel so fancy to me is getting to indulge in a glass of wine, so you'll want to make time for that too. Bathroom if you need to (and there may be a line). Most theaters either flicker the lights or play chimes to indicate your time to linger is almost up. This is your cue to head to your seat, not a warning that you have five more minutes to spare. If you arrive late, most theaters won't seat you until a scene change or break in the performance. This same all applies to intermission, according to a friend who works as a stage manager.

Don't leave early to beat traffic, either. At this point, most people in the audience are fully involved in the story, and leaving early could be even more distracting than arriving late. The appropriate time to leave is after the house lights come on.

Respect the Audience

Some noise is inevitable -- I have bad allergies and am sometimes one of those people guilty of coughing or sniffling a lot. But other noises can be avoided. One female theater-goer warned against wearing a lot of jangly jewelry or purses with chain-link straps. Don't dig around in your purse either. Remember, most theaters are designed so that noise travels -- that includes the zipping of your purse and even the vibrating of your phone.

If you MUST cough or sneeze or unwrap a throat drop, try to save it for a louder moment of the play. (This is why musicals are great.)

Respect the Dialogue

React to what's happening on stage, not what's going on with your seatmates. Don't whisper to your companions, but feel free to laugh at or applaud for the characters. Honest reactions are greatly appreciated by actors, and after performing a play several times they'll come to anticipate those reactions at certain points in the story. Match the tenor of the crowd -- if heckling is encouraged, heckle if you feel like it. But don't laugh at every little thing, especially not if you're the only one in the theater laughing.

This includes avoiding drawing attention to yourself. From a friend in Washington DC who is a major theater-junkie:

If you're attending theatre in-the-round, or a smaller stage where the audience wraps around the stage in a U-shaped pattern, and your seats are in the front row - try NOT to wear super bright colors, or really short dresses (it really pains me to say that). Chances are you're in the line-of-sight of people seated on the other side of the stage, and their eyes will be drawn to you and not the actors on stage.

And keep the cell phone IN THE PURSE/POCKET. Better yet, just turn it off. Even just checking the time or a text on your phone casts a glow that draws attention to you.

"I think most people are surprised to learn that we actually can see beyond the footlights and can hear (even in big musicals) what's going on in the theater," an actor friend in New York City said. "It is our job to connect with the audience and tell stories, which is really difficult to do when a few people are behaving poorly."

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10 comments
Jaen Hospedales
Jaen Hospedales

Hmm.. In such a case,. technically one isn't a beginner.. N'est-ce pas.?

Jaen Hospedales
Jaen Hospedales

What about if you've been upstaged for years,. with your own creations being used against you,. should you also then not upstage.? I crave to know..

Michael Morris II
Michael Morris II

As long as you bring enough for everyone, because you wouldn't want people thinking you had bad etiquette.

MadMac
MadMac

Great points, all, Ms. Shey. The Mrs. and I got the opportunity to see "Streetcar Named Desire," in 2012.  One of the ushers told us that Daphne Ruben-Vega had stopped a performance that week over people taking pictures.

Those tickets were neither free, nor cheap. Streetcar is harrowing to watch and I'm not a Blair Underwood fan but I suffered both for my Mrs. If someone goofed all over my "ain't I a great husband," moment with this silliness, I'm waiting outside for that MoMo.

aliberaltexan
aliberaltexan

A bit sad to have to point out these common sense theater etiquette tips.  Seriously.

BrittanieShey
BrittanieShey

@MadMac Hold up. You saw a version of Streetcar starring Blair Uunderwood? (Presumably playing the role of Stanley?) #swoon

MadMac
MadMac

True but it's very well done. That's in reference to the common sense tips, not the spammy Aunty Audi BS. 

MadMac
MadMac

Originally I suffered through it to make up to my Mrs. for a week of geeky scribblers at a writer's conference but Mr. Underwood really impressed me with the humor he brought to Stanley while retaining the menace. I'd always considered Nicole Ari Parker just a pretty face on TV but she was very good as well.

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