A Modern Day Guide To Theater Etiquette

ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com
ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock.com

Growing up in New York, just outside of Manhattan, I was fortunate enough to attend a lot of Broadway productions as a kid and teenager. As early as age three, I knew I wanted to be on stage one day, and my parents were generous enough to take me to as many shows as possible. Seeing a show on Broadway was always a special event; we dressed up and planned ahead to ensure we’d arrive on time. That always seemed to be the norm. I never felt out of place when I dressed in fancy clothes to a play; I looked just like everyone else in the audience.

There was a collective respect that went along with attending a show; every spectator was united in a shared desire to watch this story unfold. The lights would go down, and a hush would settle over the crowd. There was a unique communal focus that would not be lifted until the lights came on again. 

As an adult with a career in the arts, I attend a lot of productions, ranging from community to professional theatre. The audiences today are drastically different from what I remember growing up.

Recently, I went to see Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway. There were people talking at full volume, checking their phones nonstop, catcalling at actors, and, my biggest pet peeve, singing along with the musical numbers. I left that show feeling sad and nostalgic for the Broadway magic from my childhood. 

This sort of self-involved behavior is not limited to midtown Manhattan, but it feels the most jarring because of how much a Broadway ticket costs. Perhaps some don’t follow this logic, but if you’re spending upwards of one hundred dollars on your tickets, shouldn’t you treat the event as a special occasion?

As an actor and director, I feel a certain duty to urge people to reevaluate their theatre-going behavior. Here are five ways to be a better audience member in today’s modern world:

1. Turn your phone off and keep it off 

For people addicted to checking their notifications, this probably feels like a tall order. But do you really want to be that person whose ringtone blares in the middle of Eponine’s death?

The first act of any Broadway play usually lasts anywhere between 60 and 90 minutes. I guarantee that you’ll survive without looking at your instagram feed for an hour — and your seat mates will thank you.

2. Save the commentary for the post-show dinner

While watching any performance, there’s no doubt that you’ll have some thoughts that you’re dying to share with your friends. Perhaps you’ll be blown away by an actress’s power belt, or you’ll be mystified by a magical set change. Resist the urge to say it out loud, and make a mental note to talk about it later.

You may think you’re whispering, but literally everyone around you can hear. To someone who is hoping for quiet, your chatter will sound like the stampede from The Lion King. No one wants a running narration throughout the show, trust me. Keep your ideas to yourself for now.

3. Unwrap candies before the show, and reserve loud chewing for intermission

You can get chicken nuggets at movie theatre concessions these days, so it would figure that you’re also able to buy a variety of snacks in the lobby of Broadway theatres. However, this is not your living room, and you’re also not staring at a screen. There are real people on stage working their asses off for your entertainment. Try to keep it a little classy.

No one likes the guy who is ripping open a package of M&Ms in conjunction with the opening notes of a love ballad. Be respectful of what’s going on around you, and time your snacks accordingly.

4. Be punctual

Obviously there are instances when you make every effort to be somewhere and the universe has other plans for you. Sometimes things just don’t go your way. That’s understandable.

What’s not acceptable is casually rolling into a theatre fifteen minutes late, disturbing everyone in your row as you climb over their legs, and making a big production of taking off your coat and getting settled.

If you are late, the least you can do is attempt to be discreet and humble.

5. Leave the singing to the professionals.

I don’t care how “family friendly” or “fun” the show is – there is never any situation where it’s appropriate to be singing along with the actors. You may know all the words, you may feel driven by the music. It doesn’t matter. The people sitting near you will not appreciate your rendition of “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King”, no matter how good your Zazu impression is. Trust me. 

Ultimately, it all boils down to a simple dose of respect. Be respectful of other people in the audience. Be respectful of the actors, directors, and techies. Be respectful of the amount of work that goes into a live performance. As cheesy as it sounds, if you allow yourself to be transported to another world – a world separate from the life you know – you’ll be in the right mental place to be a perfect audience member every time. TC mark

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