Don't Upstage: Theater Etiquette for Beginners
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.
Photo by Flickr user Aleksandr Zykov
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."