The theatre experience: Are audiences getting worse?

We’ve all had our fair share of bad experiences with audience members when going to the theatre, and unfortunately, it’s almost expected now. Most people know the basic rules of theatre etiquette – there’s even a section on the website which covers it for those who perhaps don’t – but knowing them and following them seem to be two very different things.

I’ve witnessed plenty of bad behaviour during previous trips to the theatre myself, some which was disruptive to other people in the audience and some which was disruptive to the actors on stage. I remember on one occasion, an audience member got up in the middle of a performance (presumably on a toilet break) and actually made a point of walking right in front of the stage. Not only was he obstructing the view of everyone in the auditorium, but it was also distracting for the cast who were halfway through a big song and dance number. He clearly felt no embarrassment as he returned to his seat via the same way, and this, sadly, is just one of many examples.

My last trip visit to the theatre was to see Charlie and The Chocolate Factory at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Being a musical adaption of a Roald Dahl story which has proven popular with children from all generations, I went expecting to find many young audience members in attendance and the assumption that there would be a certain level of noise/disruption through the performance. Most violations of theatre etiquette were however committed not so much by the kids in the audience, but by the older theatre-goers. The first incident was caused by one of the most common offenses: eating during a performance. Almost as soon as the curtain went up, a youngish guy right across the aisle from me opened a packet of sweets and started rustling around excessively. After a while of this, the gentleman sat in front of me (who had been throwing him increasingly dirty looks and tutting noises) asked him in a loud whisper to stop. The response? A very ill-mannered “F**k off mate!” Nice.

We also had audience members continually in and out of seats during the performance and one who decided that the best time to go to the toilet was not in the interval, but after the second act had just started. Add in the usual culprits of phone user and talkers and it was the typical theatre experience that most regular theatre-goers have come to expect now.

The three annoying habits that are consistently listed as the most distracting on theatre visits are mobile phones, eating, and talking during performances. Theatre is a lot more accessible than it used to be and is now open to people from all walks of life, a change which carries both good and bad points with it. One of the problems is that serious theatre fans now often find themselves sat with people who think the theatre experience is the same as the TV experience, in that it’s perfectly reasonable to noisily munch through your stash of goodies while the show is on and have a good old chat about it at the same time, while also firing off text messages and popping off to the loo or to get another drink whenever you feel the need.

It’s unrealistic to expect an audience to sit in complete silence and unmoving during a performance, but it’s also unacceptable for regular theatre-goers to have to put up with the bad behaviour of certain audience members, behaviour that actually seems to be getting worse with time, not better. In recent discussions, I’ve been told of instances where audience members have not only been verbally abusive but physically abusive as well. One theatre-goer described being dragged back down into their seat while giving the cast a standing ovation at the end of a performance with the justification that they were ‘blocking the view’, while another had a run-in with a disruptive drunken man who actually grabbed them around the throat when faced with a request to quieten down.  Incidents such as these are apparently becoming more commonplace in theatres and it’s unbelievable that some people think that is acceptable behaviour. Some may lay the blame at the door of the broader audience range which is stepping into theatres nowadays, and that may be true to an extent, but if we are to start debating ‘class’ within the issue then we must take into account that disruption during performances can all too often be attributed to individuals from what we may consider a more ‘upper-class’ background too.

There are certain steps that can be and are taken to prevent disruptive incidents occurring during theatre visits. Ushers are of course on hand to keep an eye out for audience members attempting to film or take photographs of a performances, and while they may not always be as vigilant as they perhaps should be, they are generally there to intervene and put a stop to these actions. They will also listen to complaints about any other type of disruptive behaviour, and it goes without saying that all forms of violence are not tolerated within theatre walls; I would hope that upon witnessing or being informed of such incidents, those working for the theatre would immediately eject them from the premises.

Personally, I would like to see food banned altogether from the auditorium, but failing that, certainly the sale of certain items on the premises. Why theatres insist on selling noisy packets of sweets or chocolate in their foyers remains a mystery to me as these are often the cause of complaint from theatre-goers.

Putting that many people together in one place for a few hours is always going to create some disruption or annoyance, but by using a little common sense and considering the feelings of everyone else around you, most of that could be avoided. Some people are more sensitive than others while some just love to complain, so it is impossible to try and please everybody, but a trip to the theatre is supposed to be a magical adventure…not the stuff of nightmares. So next time you find yourself there, put away the phone, stop stuffing your face, shut up for just a few hours and just let yourself become swept up in the wonder and joy of the theatre. Then perhaps everyone will have the memorable experience that they have not only paid for, but deserve.

By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)

(If you have had a particularly bad experience with audience members at the theatre, why not tell us about it in the comments section below?)

Content updated 1st May 2014

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