Those Pesky Texters and Chatters: Etiquette Versus Audience Building, and What Can Be Done

C. Austin Hill

This past week has been aflame with naughty audience members.  Not since Richard Griffiths’ tirade during HISTORY BOYS has the theatre world been so up-in-arms about cell-phones and bad behavior in the theatre. 

Okay, the opening was pure hyperbole.  Of course we’ve discussed this problem since 2004.  In fact, it’s been discussed A LOT.  It just so happens that this past week has produced two very news-worthy stories about something we are well aware of—a growing problem with etiquette in the theatre.

I have my own anecdotes about rude (or just weird) audience members—I’m sure we all do.  Here are some of my favorites:

When I directed Conor McPherson’s THE WEIR in Columbus, Ohio, in a non-traditional theatre space, we arranged the playing area in such a way that it blocked access to the space’s only bathroom.  This would not, we were told, be a problem—as the play was a tidy 90 minutes, and we were willing to make the bathroom available before the show (we put our “backstage” area behind the audience seating—which made for a more immersive experience).  For two of our three performances in the space, all was well—but the third got all weird.  For those who don’t know the show, THE WEIR is set in a pub in rural Ireland, and features—at it’s simplest description—5 people telling ghost stories.  About 40 minutes into the performance, in the middle of a scene, while the cast was talking, a man stood up, walked through the performance space—directly between two characters that were talking to each other—and into the bathroom.  Then he returned to his seat when he was finished…through the scene once again.  My cast, to their credit, never batted an eye.  They carried right on as though nothing had happened.

Also in Columbus, I directed a production for Actor’s Theatre Company—a well-loved company that makes theatre outdoors in an urban park.  During this production we had a series of strange moments that ranged from a neighbor deliberately playing music as loudly as possible with all of the windows open, to the frequent helicopters delivering patients to a nearby trauma hospital.  These things are, of course, part of the joy and challenge of outdoor theatre—and were anticipated.  What I didn’t anticipate was the man who came to every single performance (we ran for a month), wandered in in the middle of the first act, sat and watched the show, solicited for cigarettes during intermission, and then stood (STOOD) directly in front of other audience members for the first 20 minutes of act 2, then left.  On the one hand, I’m glad he liked my work enough to come every night…on the other hand, some awareness of those around him would have been preferred.

When I started at my college I was given the choice of making my productions available as an option for students to fulfill a convocation attendance requirement.  Some other student organizations had opted out due to a proliferation of texting or other rude behavior.  I decided that I would allow convo credit for my productions, and that I would take responsibility for ensuring the product onstage was engaging enough to hold attention (as best I could).  As expected, I do have some instances of abhorrent behavior—including a student that brought a full box of Lucky Charms to a performance and proceeded to hunt for the marshmallows until she left at intermission.  She did not get convocation credit.  We also occasionally get bathroom goers (I don’t usually have enough staffers to enforce a no-reentry policy, so I don’t have one), intermission leavers, talkers, and cell-phone users.  I stop those I can, and try to educate—isn’t that what college is for?

But all of this begs some hard questions.  When and how do we go about educating our audiences?  In my general ed. Intro to Theatre classes I discuss theatre etiquette.  I tell students the rules and expectations…I remind them that we KNOW when they are on their phones because NOBODY’S crotch glows that brightly naturally.  We talk about showing up on time, and about staying the full length of the show.  I threaten them with grades, and inform them about the hundreds of hours of work that went into shows.  And I sit and hope that I’ve done enough.  But I am aware—always aware—that I have taught only a percentage of the student body that will attend plays.  I hope that, like Chris Peterson suggests in his column from July 9, my students will police their peers.

When I worked with a children’s theatre in Utah, we would begin each school performance with a curtain speech that reminded our your audience that, unlike movies, our actors could see and hear them…and that disruptive behavior was rude.  I always thought that those speeches made excellent sense for an audience of school-age kids.  But what about adults?  Apart from the usual “turn off your phone, no photos or videos” announcement, how far should we go with college-aged students, or with Broadway audiences? 

I’m also concerned about how this type of stricture impacts our attempts at audience building.  How can we invite in all comers, and then chastise them about their behavior?  How can we cultivate young audiences, or new audiences, and then expect them to know our “rules”?  How can we NOT expect them to know our rules if we are to keep our existing audiences happy?

For my upcoming production of AS YOU LIKE IT, I’m thinking of trying an experiment…I’m strongly considering, during my curtain speech, asking all of my audience members to pull out their phones, open their twitter apps or other social mediums, and sharing the fact that they are seeing my show—along with the next show time/date.  Then, of course, I’ll ask them to turn off their phones.  What if I can turn my curtain speech into marketing? Perhaps it’s time to accept the fact that we live in a digital age, find a way to put that to work for us in building an audience, and gently educate the etiquette we expect.