How to be a Great Audience Member in 5 Easy Steps

Melinda Zupaniotis

I go to a lot of theatre. A. LOT.

Whether it’s Broadway, community theatre, regional or a kid shows, I am always amazed at the behavior of the audience. In an era where we are all so used to yelling back at our TV, pausing the DVR for a potty break or simply having conversations while the entertainment happens in the background, it has somehow become commonplace to forget the unwritten rules of etiquette when it comes to going to the theatre.

Back in the “olden days”, any venture to an outside means of entertainment was considered a special occasion. (Well, except medieval bear-fights – I think those were pretty casual, drunken affairs…) When did we lose our perspective for what is acceptable in a public forum? When did going to the theatre become no more important than watching a Law and Order: SVU marathon on the USA network?

I’ve compiled a list of criteria that I wish audience members would keep in mind when venturing out for a night of culture – even if it’s just for bragging rights or obligation, as opposed to true interest.

1. Show up on time.

And by “on time”, I mean early. Most theatres post the time at which the house opens (usually about 30 minutes prior to show time). And the truth is that if a show is slated to begin at 8pm, it probably won’t begin until 8:05, but that doesn’t mean you should waltz in at 8:02. It doesn’t mean you should milk your pre-show dinner and cappuccino until 7:55, then head over to the theatre. It doesn’t mean that you should stand around in the lobby socializing until they close the doors. In my utopia, the audience would arrive no later than 15 minutes prior, get themselves seated and prepared for the journey. Turn off your cell phone (more on that later), unwrap your candies (more on that later), scan the program to see who is in the show and which sponsors supported the show, and focus on the fact that you’ve signed up for an experience.

When you are late, the following things happen:

Seating is delayed, causing the house to be held, causing undue and unneeded stress on the Stage Manager and other members of the backstage crew, including the cast, causing everyone to lose their momentum.

Some theaters, such as Curtain Call in Stamford, CT with its dedicated Box Office crew of Lisa DiDonato and Jeff Karwosky, tirelessly put out pre-show phone calls to the tardy patrons hoping to accommodate them by holding the house if their plans are still to come to the show. Sometimes, people are stuck in traffic, but sometimes, they just blow it off. That’s a lot of unnecessary work that needs to happen in a very short amount of time.

At sold out shows, the waitlist is usually activated 15 minutes prior, so if you’re late, your seat will be given away to someone else (who bothered to show up at a reasonable time).

When a show begins late, the show inevitably ends late. While a late start would be more apt to happen at a non-union theater, should it happen at a Union house, after a certain hour, the theater gets financially penalized and that could result in the increase of expenses which could result in the increase of ticket prices in the future. And for ALL shows, a late ending can be deemed inconvenient for audience members, especially those who are older or have childcare, and can result in a departure before final curtain and/or in an unsatisfactory experience at an otherwise wonderful show.

Should the production begin without you, you might have to wait to be seated at a time that the house manager deems appropriate. For musicals, that’s usually after the opening number or between songs. For other plays, it could be after the first scene, or at some other designated break in the storyline. But don’t you dare think that you’re off the hook, because it’s still a disruption to the flow of the show to have people walking through the aisles during the music/dialogue/etc. That disruption grows exponentially when you factor in that your seat might be in the middle of the row, forcing everyone else to stand or exit the row while you make your way in.

2. Please do not talk/text/whatever-the-next-thing-is.

You may think you’ve mastered the art of the whisper. You may pride yourself on your covert under-the-coat thumb typing. But believe me…we can all hear/see you - and it is super-annoying. Your need to communicate at a time when you should be quietly listening, pulls everyone else out of their rapture with the story and performances. People come to the theatre to escape the everyday world and your selfishness destroys that illusion. For an elderly person to ask one time, “What did he just say?” is forgivable, but for you to break into a story with your companion about how “that line is just like the time…” is a conversation that you should bank for post-show drink conversation. Additionally, I have been to Broadway shows where clearly one person dragged the other to the event, and the drag-ee proceeded to spend the entire show on his phone, thinking that his presence was enough of a pacifier to the drag-er. It’s not. It sucks. If you don’t want to be there, take your backlit iPhone to the bar around the corner and meet up when the show is over. 3. Please turn off your phone.

Speaking of phones – just turn them off. Don’t put it in airplane mode…don’t just silence it. Turn it off! We are so addicted to communication these days that it’s become a ticket for us to check our phone every 2 minutes. Even if the ringer is off, one will want to check to see if they’ve missed anything. Also, sometimes, people don’t turn the ringer off properly – a low ringtone will happen or the ever-annoying buzz of vibrate-mode. Just shut it off. It won’t kill you to be disconnected for a couple of hours and you can always check your messages at intermission. If you are waiting on life-or-death news, then perhaps you should have realistically skipped the theatre that night. But if you’re worried that your babysitter might call, you could nicely ask a front of house staff member to monitor your phone for you and they can retrieve you in the event of a real emergency.

3. Please do not eat.

OK, there’s actually a disclaimer to this bullet point. It’s alright to eat during a show if your food (and your mouth) makes no noise, AND if you’re in the proper setting.

In a standard theater scenario: Unwrap your lozenges/candies before the show so you can pop them in your mouth during the play, if desired. I once spent 20 minutes of a show watching an old lady unwrap one candy. (Well, it wasn’t that great of a show to begin with, so perhaps I should have thanked her for the entertainment.) Also, if you purchase a food/beverage item at intermission, either finish it before Act II or ensure that it doesn’t create undue noise. Sidebar: Popcorn is ALWAYS loud, not matter what you think.

In a cabaret seating venue: Most picnic-and-production theaters open the doors 45-60 minutes prior to curtain to allow for you to get your nom on, so make sure to come early so that you and your party can get the noisy food out of the way before the show starts. Open the potato chip bags, take the crackers out of the plastic wrap, release the tin foil and pop those wine corks now – or do so at intermission. When the show begins, you can still be eating, just doing so quietly. I once sat through a very intimate drama with the table next to me rustling bags, opening champagne corks and chomping on Fritos for 2 ½ hours. I still cannot tell you what the play was about because my focus wasn’t on the stage.

4. Please dress respectfully.

This is a very subjective point, but one in which I really believe. There was a time when going to the theatre was a regal, privileged event and people wore their Sunday best. I know that times have changed and that there is so much theatre that is accessible to everyone, but please don’t come in your sweats. I have seen people in all sorts of disarray at the theatre, and yes, that might be the best some can do for a variety of reasons, but if that’s not your excuse, please comb your hair, put on some deodorant and pull out a decent outfit. Maybe if we treated theatre as real “event” again, then other points of etiquette would resume, by proxy.

5. Please try to appreciate the work that went into the production.

This one is difficult as it asks naysayers to find the silver lining and negative people to find the positive. Even if you disliked a production for whatever reason(s), try to look at the big picture and find something great. If you weren’t a fan of the music, then what about the lighting? Was the set impressive? Did you love the performance by the third guy on the right? Was the usher nice? Theaters, their production staff, crew and actors put a lot of time and love into what they present to you. In the realm of community theatre, most of those people are putting their time, sweat and love in without pay. Something may not be your cup of tea, and that’s OK, but before you think or speak badly about a theater or a director or a playwright, think of the whole and try to find something that you enjoyed. Not only will it service theatre as a genre to do so, but it will give you a better perspective on all things in your life. Does every show deserve a standing ovation or a saccharine review? Absolutely not. But hard work and dedication does deserve some acknowledgement, so please give some applause no matter what.

Despite these pet peeves, I always enjoy the experience of going to the theatre and encourage you to make theatre-going a regular part of your social outlet. Invites some friends to join you! It is a great way to learn something new, be entertained and people-watch, as well as a way to meet new friends. I especially encourage you to support your local, community theaters, wherever you may live. You might find an affordable gem in your own backyard!