Theater Etiquette for the 21st Century

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), September 11, 2011 | Go to article overview

Theater Etiquette for the 21st Century


Byline: Tom Williams chicagocritic.com

I am beginning my 11th year as a theater critic and my 50th year as a theater patron. I am more aware of theater etiquette than in past years. Perhaps because both theater companies and theater patrons have changed their habits -- and not for the good, that I felt compelled to write this article. I learned to be most observant because I'm at theater both to enjoy the show and report on it, so peculiar behavior and habits jump out at me.

Let me start by observing that things have changed over the years. People now don't dress up to go to thetheater. Theater is now much more of a casual event rather than a main source of entertainment as it was in years past.Seeing a live stage show is a communal experience for everyone -- audience members and performers. This more casual atmosphere has several new trends associated with it.

First, more people than ever are arriving late for shows and more theaters are seating them long after the show has started, violating my Rule One:

"Thou shall not arrive late for a show -- and -- thou shall not seat anyone after the curtain rises until the intermission" as the Chicago Lyric Opera does. (Exception: possibly a theater venue could seat latecomers in the last few rows therefore not disrupting anyone's enjoyment of the show.) Theater patrons should check the show's starting time and traffic conditions before departing.

Second, the theater venues should open the theaters sooner so everyone can be seated well before show time. Starting late is a NOT an option -- it is rude to all who have arrived on time. Venues need not wait until a half-hour before the show is to start to open the theater when it takes more time to seat everyone therefore guaranteeing a late start.Having patrons standing in line like a herd of cattle is rude and unnecessary -- just open the lobby and the theater sooner and let the patrons wait in their seats instead of standing in a lobby.

For smaller storefront theaters: NEVER have a minimum number of audience members to mount a performance. If a critic or a member of the media is at your theater-- be respectful of their time and interest in your production -- and do the show even if they are the only one in the audience. Let your patrons know -- by phone or email -- if there is a possibility of a cancellation. Respect people's time -- always.

Intermissions: most venues' intermissions are too long -- 10 minutes or 15 minutes means just that. I have been to shows where all the audience members have arrived back in their seats, yet the show didn't start for five to eight minutes -- so much for the timed intermission. Again: respect our time.

By far the general rudeness of theater audiences has grown over the years. Theater patrons must realize that they are not in their homes watching TV -- they are in a theater sharing a live theatrical experience with others. Common etiquette dictates the following:Be careful getting seated -- check your tickets to make sure you're in the proper seat and be careful not to step on the feet of the person you're moving past and be careful not to hit the person seated in the row in front of you with your backpack, coat or handbag. At least two to three times per week, I get hit in the head with a careless bag or coat by a clueless theater patron. …

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