Tips and advice on how to practice good etiquette and appropriate manners when attending a live theater show.
Some theater newcomers aren’t sure what the proper behavior and theatre etiquette is when attending a play or musical. Common questions that first-timers ask are: What is the appropriate attire for the theater? Are refreshments available at the theater? When do I applaud during the performance?
Those are all good questions, but there are also other important questions that most visitors don’t think to ask, many of which are related to how to behave (and how not to behave) during the show so as to better enjoy the performance and to allow the rest of the people in the audience to enjoy it as well.
Sitting in a live show is not like being at a movie theater – it’s usually much more quiet, so you have to be more careful not to make noise. The performers who are entertaining you are doing so live and in person, so it’s important to be respectful to them as well.
Because many first-time theater attendees – and, frankly, many regular theatergoers who should really know better by now – aren’t exactly sure what the proper theatre etiquette and behavior is, we have created a primer on the Do’s and Don’ts (mostly the latter) of theatre etiquette when attending a live performance.
1. Turn Off Your Cell Phone
Somehow the most obvious rule of good theatre etiquette is still the most often disregarded. Turn it off, people. Turn. It. Off. And, no, putting your cell phone on vibrate isn’t good enough – the people next to you can hear that weird buzzing sound, too. Be present for the moment.
2. Don’t Send Text Messages During the Show
You may think you’re being all incognito, but in a darkened theater, the light from your cell phone screen is incredibly distracting to those around you. And why do you still have your phone on anyway? We just told you to turn it off!
3. There is no photography or videoing allowed in the theater.
As mentioned above it is super distracting to the other people who are trying to watch the show. Beyond that, it is distracting to the performers who are prepared to give you the best performance possible. Finally, it is illegal in many instances. The majority of most performance contracts strictly forbid the recording of a performance. The organization producing the show has a responsibility to discourage the practice. Set designs, costume designs, direction, performances and the script and music are all the intellectual property of those who created them. It is possible you may be responsible for copyright infringement by recording a live theatrical production.
4. Eat Your Dinner Before the Show, Not DURING It
This isn’t the movies. Munching on candy and chips during a live performance is annoying to your neighbors. Bringing hamburgers and large salads (oh, yes, we’ve seen people do it) is really unacceptable. If you’re absolutely starving (after all, nobody wants to hear your stomach growling either), then a little quiet snacking on something fairly unobtrusive like M&Ms is acceptable. But it’s still better if you avoid eating altogether during the show and get your treats in the lobby during the intermission instead.
5. If You Have To Cough, Cover Your Mouth
In this age of diseases-of-the-week from SARS to swine flu, there is nothing more bone-chilling to a theatergoer than the sound of a nearby cough and an accompanying gust of air. Yuck. Coughing is inevitable, but failure to cover your mouth is a real faux pas, so try to keep kleenex or a handkerchief on hand. And if you have a cold, be sure to bring some lozenges with you.
6. Unwrap Cough Drops and Candies in Advance
If you anticipate any coughing fits during the show, be sure to unwrap your lozenges before the performance starts and have them at the ready. That crinkling sound is like nails on a chalkboard during a quiet play. And, no, unwrapping it S-L-O-W-L-Y does not help the situation … it’s much, much worse.
7. Don’t Be A Disruptive Miss (or Mr.) Manners
Sure, it’s irritating when someone’s cell phone goes off, but what’s even worse is when the brief breach of theatre etiquette is followed by a series of overreactions from other audience members. Annoyed “Tsks,” “Hmphs,” hisses, snarls, and shouts of “Turn it off!” along with scandalized glares can be just as distracting as the original disruption.
8. Don’t Talk During the Show
A quick whisper to your neighbor, or an audible reaction to something interesting that happens on stage is fine (this is the live theater, not the morgue), but keep conversations to the intermission and after the show. Nobody needs to hear your theories on what the next plot twist will be, and please refrain from asking your companion to explain to you what was just said onstage. By the time he or she explains it to you, you’ll have both missed something else important.
9. Don’t Sing Along
It’s tempting sometimes, we know. But if you want to sing on stage, then you’re gonna have to audition like those people up onstage did. Your fellow theater fans paid money to hear the performers flex their vocal muscles, not you. Save your sweet singing for post-show karaoke. (There are a few exceptions to this rule, such as when the performers onstage actually prompt the audience to join in.)
10. Don’t Feel Like You Have to Dress Up
Although opening night audiences usually dress up a bit, there is no dress code for Broadway. Your local of regional theater may have different community standards, but the important point is that you are supporting live theater no matter what you are (appropriately) wearing. Technically you can come in shorts and flip flops, but we advise against this, especially since many theaters usually crank up the air conditioning.
11. Try Not To Fall Asleep
Your snoring may be taken as a protest of sorts, but generally it’s just disruptive to those around you. It’s also insulting to the hard-working performers up onstage.
12. Standing Ovations Are Overdone – Don’t Give In To Peer Pressure
Traditionally, applause for an actor when he or she first takes the stage and standing ovations at the end of a Broadway show were signs of an audience so full of appreciation and respect that they couldn’t help themselves. Lately these reactions seem to have become obligatory, and unfortunately when standing ovations and entrance applause are done out of mere habit, they essentially become meaningless. Ultimately, how you react is up to you, but let your true feelings guide you.
13. Respect the Space and Comfort of Those Around You
Many theater seats make Economy Class on a commercial airliner look luxurious, so sometimes a little elbow bumping can’t be helped. But you can practice good theater etiquette by taking care to not lean into your neighbor, hog armrests, intrude on other people’s already limited leg room, or let your big heavy coat hang so far off the back of your seat that it ends up in someone else’s lap.