The evolution of theatre etiquette

How have theatre audiences changed over the years?

Jenica Davis
14th March 2023
Image credit: Unsplash
When you buy a theatre ticket, you sign an unspoken agreement: you have agreed to take on the role as an audience member, a role that comes with a set of rules. Like the actors on stage, everyone needs to play their part.

What is theatre etiquette?

Theatre etiquette is the code of behaviour that all audience members are expected to follow in order for the audience and performers to have the best experience possible. A lot of time, money, and effort goes into putting on an enjoyable theatre show, therefore it is an event that is deserving of respect. Whilst everyone will have a different idea of what ‘correct’ theatre etiquette is, the fundamental rules to follow are arrive on time or (ideally) slightly early; go to the toilet before the show starts and during the interval if you need to; turn your phone off and put it away; do not speak during the show; do not put your feet on seats (keep to yourself); avoid eating smelly and noisy snacks; refrain from talking about someone’s performance until you have left the theatre; and be polite and respectful (to both the actors and other fans) if you are waiting at the stage door.

These basic, behavioural rules for audiences seem very straightforward, and are arguably common sense. Yet, theatre etiquette has seemed to become lost amongst crowds in recent years.

How have theatre audiences and expectations changed over time?

Theatre audiences in ancient Greek times were extremely rowdy and vocal; many uproars would occur if audience members were upset with a certain aspect of the show. Lively theatre crowds continued into the Renaissance era, with crowds heavily drinking and eating, engaging in romantic trysts, and notoriously pick-pocketing, all whilst Shakespeare’s newest play was being performed. Disruptive audience behaviour saw some reform in the eighteenth century when the audience started to be separated from the stage, but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that this structural separation was properly imposed. Soaring in popularity, the use of the proscenium arch and limelight divided audience members from the performers; the audience was in the shadows and the performers were illuminated. This enabled the behavioural policing of theatre crowds and, by the end of the century, a social ‘contract’ in theatres was enforced – which we now know as theatre etiquette.

The expectations that follow theatre-going today have changed quite drastically, largely because it is viewed as a much more casual outing.

However, the expectations that follow theatre-going today have changed quite drastically, largely because it is viewed as a much more casual outing. People don’t get dressed up for the theatre anymore, unlike back when it was seen as an ‘event.’ This more casual atmosphere has subsequently led to theatre etiquette becoming forgotten, with crowds dressing down their manners too. From late arrivals to loud wrappers, there are a lot of rising issues amongst theatre audiences, however the most predominant issue in the last decade appears to be phones; a lot of actors have reportedly stopped mid-performance to call out certain audience members or even confiscate their phones. The crowds found at the stage door after the show have also become very untamed, being rude and aggressive to those around them so they can snatch the chance to speak to their favourite actor.

Whilst theatre etiquette needs to be re-instilled into today’s audiences, theatre still needs to be accessible for everyone. Certain etiquette rules are argued as discriminatory, not taking disabled people into consideration, such as people with tourettes. Therefore, when reinforcing theatre etiquette, it’s vital not to enforce abliest behavioural norms, because theatre is an experience that should be open to everyone.

Theatre is an experience that should be open to everyone.

Ultimately, all that theatre etiquette boils down to is respect. Whether you are going to see a beloved show at the West End or your local theatre’s Christmas pantomime, theatre etiquette should always be remembered.

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