Folks, it’s time for some Theater Audience Etiquette Real Talk. We have reached  a crisis point. The auditoriums of theaters have become a free-for-all: cell phones ringing ad nauseam, garbage strewed about willy-nilly, audience members coming and going at their leisure. It’s time to take a stand. Perhaps you have heard how Tom Hiddleston brilliantly handled a ringing cell phone during a recent performance of Betrayal on Broadway? Or maybe you remember the late Richard Griffiths berating an audience member using their cell phone during a performance of The History Boys and asking him to leave the building.

I worked as a House Manager at an Off-Broadway theater for five years so I have definitely been in the trenches. Today, I offer 5 simple, top tips on how to become a better audience member at the theater.

Please Be On Time

I get it: life is unpredictable. Transportation is unreliable. Plans change. Meetings run long. People get lost. Sometimes it rains. I get it, I really do … but still. Please be on time. As a House Manager, I always did everything I could to accommodate late patrons; I would often hold starting the show if possible. But eventually, we do have to start. Please remember, as soon as we pass the show’s scheduled start time (that’s 8:01pm for most shows) your ticket no longer has any value. None! We kind Front of House employees will attempt to assist you (sometimes there is a late seating cue or a policy that will allow you to attend a future performance). But anything that the theater offers latecomers is a courtesy, not a right. There are no guarantees. You are not entitled to your original seat location or any sort of special treatment. Please don’t pull rank or throw a fit because you showed up late and are having to live with the consequences. Instead, next time pad out your schedule a bit. Get to the theater early! Get a drink at the bar! Explore the neighborhood! And please don’t blame the theater staff for your mistake. Which leads us to … 

Please be Respectful Towards the Theater Staff

As an Off-Broadway House Manager, I have been called an asshole and a Nazi, elbowed in the stomach, and had a purse thrown at me by patrons. I have had angry patrons threaten to call the cops on me, threaten to call the Mayor of New York, and threaten to call Joe Papp on me (Joe Papp has been dead for 30 years). Let’s all take a breath and remember that at the end of the day, it’s only a play. The stakes are relatively low here. Let’s keep the drama on the stage. There is no excuse to be rude to an employee at a theater. Ever. We are here to help you. As a House Manager, I am legally responsible for the safety of everyone in the building. It is my job to ensure the comfort of the theater goer. Being rude or angry or dismissive or sassy will not help! We had a lot of rules at the theater where I worked that could be bent or broken if a patron was kind, but if a patron was nasty towards us those rules became set in stone. Try leading with politeness. If you need something, ask for it, don’t demand it. If you are unhappy about something (seat location, theater temperature, the quality of the show), it’s okay to express that to the staff, but please do so in a respectful way. Remember, the House Manager is balancing your needs with the needs of all the other audience members. Many a time one patron would complain to me about how cold it was in the theater, and another patron would complain to me about how hot it was in the theater. At the same performance! We all have needs, wants, and desires. The Front of House staff will attempt to assist you as best we can. Please be patient with us and treat us like human beings.  

Please, Please, Please Turn Off Your Cell Phone

This one should go without saying. And yet, the epidemic gets forever worse. Please turn off your phone. Like off. Like all the way off. Please turn off your phone. Like before the show starts. Not during the overture. Not halfway through the first scene. Please double check your phone. Please do not simply silence it. Please turn off all your other gizmos too. Smart watches are the new nuisance. They glow just like phones. So every time you clap the people sitting behind you get a light show. Please, turn everything off. Our phones go with us everywhere nowadays. There is no part of our life in which our phone does not accompany us. Except the theater. What a gift! What an opportunity! You get to unplug completely for a couple of hours! Go off the grid. What a rare release from care. Don’t squander it! Rather, relish the chance to engage in a live participatory event unfolding in real time, shared with a unique group of people in a specific, real place that will never, ever be repeated in the rest of the history of time. Why interrupt that with a glance at your phone? You have your whole life to be tethered to your screen; let your time at the theater be a respite. Please, please, please turn it off. I know it’s hard, but I have faith in you. All the messages, all the pictures, all the goofy memes will be waiting for you after curtain call. And if you need to have your phone on since your wife is having a baby, you probably shouldn’t be at the theater! If you are at the theater, be at the theater. Fully. Please turn off your phone. Or Patti LuPone will find you. And she will end you. She will belt you into the ground. 

Please Don’t Be a Slob

Let’s remember some basic manners here. The theater is a sacred space, not a dorm room. Please clean up after yourself. Please don’t sneak in weird stuff. Cleaning up the auditorium after a show can be like wading into a landfill. During the 2018 production of Chess, the London Coliseum banned audience members from taking in all food and drink bought outside the venue as patrons had been picnicking in their seats. I once found an entire pizza box under a seat (how [and perhaps, why] did someone sneak that in?). I’ve cleaned up sunflower seeds, peanut shells, and a million wads of gum. It’s gross and inconsiderate. And so easy to avoid. Just give a quick glance to your seat as you leave at the end of the night. That’s all it takes. 

Please Behave Like a Human

Okay, now it’s time for some truly bizarre Front of House horror stories from my years on the front lines. Once while a show was in progress, I witnessed with my own eyes a patron crawl from their seat, down the aisle, onto the stage and across the set, where they proceeded to grab a tissue from a prop tissue box. The patron then crawled back to their seat and blew their nose. Please don’t do that.

Another time, a patron who was not enjoying the show, stood up as intermission was beginning and yelled “Kill the playwright!”, which the Front of House staff had to treat as a legitimate threat. Please don’t do that.

Once a patron exited the auditorium several seconds before the end of the show and projectile vomited all over me, the lobby, and the stairs that the rest of the audience was about to use to exit the theater. Please, if at all possible, try not to do that. 

In general, when at the theater, attempt to behave like a human being might behave: with grace, good humor, and empathy. The staff will thank you, the actors will thank you, and your fellow audience members will thank you. Theater going is a glorious civic activity, a democratic right, a shared communal experience that brings us together and unites us in exploring our mutual humanity. Try not to let your personal behavior impact the bliss of others. Your responsibilities as an audience member are relatively simple and straightforward: please show up on time, be courteous, sit down, turn off your technology, allow yourself to be transported through the magic of a transcendent 2000 year-old art form, and then (catharsis achieved) please pick up your garbage and leave in a prompt, orderly manner. These suggestions aren’t meant to make your theater excursions dry, dull, or pedestrian. On the contrary, I support you engaging with and reacting to live performance in whatever way brings you joy, as long as your enjoyment doesn’t impede anyone else’s. Theater should be a joyous affair! Come celebrate! … but please turn off your phone. 

2 comments

  1. I agree with 99 44/100% of what you’ve written (and written well, something I don’t say very often). However, in all my readings of the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and other great American fundamental documents, nowhere have I seen theater listed as a “democratic right”. I love it, I participate in it in many ways (audience member, actor, director, stagehand, front-of-house, set builder, board member), but I view it as a privilege, not a right. Many of the issues I’ve encountered in/with shows have been because someone (audience member, actor, etc.) has viewed what they want as their right rather than their privilege.

  2. Thank you for this. I must add to please, please, please not sing along with the actors at musicals. I wish you the best, and hope that I would be willing to pay $200 to hear you some day. But not tonight, while Aaron Tveit and Karen Olivo are singing. Not tonight.

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