Theatregoers' Bill of Rights
When I saw my first Broadway show when I was fifteen, I was on a school trip. We were told that seeing a Broadway show was a big deal and that we should treat this as something extra-special. Our teachers told us that we should dress up in our nicest outfits, be respectful to the performers and other audience members by showing good manners and remaining under control. It was explained to us that you clap to show you loved it, but you also clapped to show respect for the work that had been done. There would be no “booing” or “screaming” and that we were to represent ourselves and our school at our very best. I have always appreciated the respect for theatre that these teachers instilled in me and wish they were present now to school contemporary audiences in theatre etiquette.
In recent days, we have seen and heard stories about audience members making egregious faux pas at Broadway plays and musicals. The charging of cellphones by an audience member on the set of Hand to God and the confiscation of a cellphone from a rogue “texter” by Patti LuPone during a performance of Shows for Days are both signs that some people have lost a sense of what theatre is and what the experience is about. It is an immersion into illusion that takes us away from our everyday lives and teaches us empathy and introspection while simultaneously entertaining. This is a unique experience, and not one most of us have the privilege of participating in every day. Poor theatre etiquette, courtesy of oblivious audience members, detracts from the magic and it certainly is frustrating from the performer’s point of view.
Theatregoers’ Bill of Rights
Since the primary reason why most of us are in attendance at a play or musical is to actually have the pleasure of seeing and hearing that production, free of extraneous annoyances that detract from the show’s impact: your secondary business remains secondary to the purpose of those gathered. This being said, I believe we are entitled, without exception, to the following:
- To enjoy a Broadway show unfettered by the distractions of modern, handheld technology.
The producers of plays and musicals are explicit in their directions prior to the show that cell phones should be shut off and cameras and recording devices are not permitted. The immediacy of your text message or phone call means that a blinding light is flashing in the eyes of many patrons, and your conversation is making it impossible for us to hear, removing us from the world we are paying good money to enter.
- To expect you to be in your seat on time, before the show commences.
When a play or musical starts, we are invited past the fourth-wall of the stage and to enter into the world of the playwright, director, designers and performers. Very often, important exposition and character development occurs in the first half-hour. When you and your tardy band arrive twenty-minutes into Act One, climbing over those of us who planned ahead and arrived on time, you are breaking the illusion, detracting from our escapism, and the production is compromised. There is often a message in the program telling us that “latecomers will be seated at an appropriate break in the performance”, yet that seldom seems to happen. More often than not, we are treated to a parade of silhouettes “apologetically” sliding into their seats halfway through the opening number.
- To have an experience that is above and beyond that of a movie theatre.
From the opening of candy wrappers to people putting their feet up on the empty (or filled) seats in front of them, this is all in terrible taste and shows an appalling lack of understanding that theatre is something special. Gone are the days when people made it an effort to dress up for the theatre, but we can still operate with decorum and common sense.
- To demonstrate to the performers that we, as a collective body, comprehend the meaning of live-theatre by showing their craft and their artistry the respect that it deserves.
As hard as it may be to believe that there is a world beyond television that doesn’t allow us to pause, rewind, and get up to go to the bathroom at our convenience without disturbing the actors, the people up on the stage are living, breathing people who also are privy to every distraction an audience can muster. If we are to expect their very best, then we must provide conditions where they can give us that. Acting requires concentration and focus, both of which are sorely undermined by rude audience behavior.
- To demonstrate my enthusiasm for a production in an appropriate way.
We must admit that we do not understand why every audience feels compelled to give standing ovations these days. Perhaps it’s the high price we pay for theatre tickets that makes us stand, feeling as though we have to prove we got our money’s worth. Not every show and not every performance deserves one. I like to reserve standing up and clapping, long and loud, for the shows and performances that bowl me over. It allows us to demonstrate a distinction between good and great. In terms of how we show our appreciation, clapping is appropriate but catcalling is not. Theatre should be a civilized experience.
- To lose one’s self in the glorious world of the theatre.
It’s simple: don’t interrupt and take us out of the experience. We don’t care how well you know the score to The King and I, we don’t want to hear you sing it while you are sitting next to us. Please don’t chat with your companion. Feel free to laugh at the jokes, sob at the heartbreak, and clap where appropriate, but the person you came with is not your improvisation partner and you certainly aren’t Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show. We promise you: if you sit still, listen and watch, you will have an experience unlike anything you have ever had. It’s called magic.