In the season of generosity, I am leaving the artists alone today and instead dedicating this blog to theatre audiences in the vain attempt to teach you all a few lessons in theatre etiquette.
So here’s the 10 point plan on how you can be a better audience member.
1. Switch off the phone. I mean off. Not just on silent. Not vibrating. Not checking your messages or the time throughout the show because even when you think you are covering the light with your Neanderthal palms, we can still see it. It’s a classic move of pulling focus. You’re upstaging the action and you’re not even on stage. Get out or get that bloody phone off.
2. Theatre is not a movie. Don’t take your crinkly wrapped snacks in and take what feels like 20 minutes to unwrap it and munch away. The fine line of suspending disbelief is certainly broken by the sound you are making. Eat beforehand or take in a banana and then at least you can throw the peel on stage if it’s a dog of a show.
3. This one is for the oldies. Do not narrate the action for me during the show. Many a show has gone from realism to Brechtian when the old lady next to me taps me on the shoulder during a scene and tells me that Hedda is “on her honeymoon” or when Paula Arundell in ‘Blackbird’ is in the middle of her emotional monologue to her old lover about his paedophile tendencies and an audience member leans over to her friends and states “Oh that Paula Arundell is an excellent actress” at the top of her voice. Yes she is but now she’s not so engaging because you have broken the spell. A little bit of shush wouldn’t go astray. Oh, and if you suspect you might go to sleep and snore during the show, maybe a) the show’s not so great so give it a miss, b) arrange for someone to wheel you out of the exit or c) take some serious drugs which will not only keep you awake but give you a very interesting perspective of the show.
4. As an extension of this- for the school students and younger members of the audience- yelling out “you’re hot” will not secure you the actor’s phone number and screaming when the lights go down as if you were in the Roman coliseum waiting for the Christians to be eaten by the lions may suggest you need to get out more or certainly watch less TV. Talking to your friends during the show will be heard and frustrate the rest of the audience and will just reiterate the generational stereotyping that teenagers are annoying, selfish shits. Please don’t give people reasons to dislike you more than they already do.
5. Stop being so polite at the end of the show when it should inspire a revolt of disgust or appreciation. How about taking on a more European approach to theatre? Booing in the curtain call or rhythmic clapping when it’s wonderful. And can a plant in the audience cue in the audience to clap if you have one of those confusing endings so we all know when it’s time to go home? Also think about not giving ordinary things a standing ovation because you want the actors in the show to see you and get that nod of thanks and acknowledgement or because you are a sycophantic theatre-goer. If it didn’t make your heart stop or take you on a journey that changed your perception of theatre as you knew it, stay seated.
6. I know it must be hard for parents to keep vestiges of your old life once those babies arrive. Babes-in-arms or mothers club has been a great invention of cinema audiences. However, no such initiative has occurred in theatre yet so really think twice before bringing that baby with you to the show. The sound of a crying baby is not only creating a visceral effect on the audience but I can’t imagine there’s an actor in the world who could stay in character when the sound of a baby permeates the stage. Get a babysitter or sit out in the foyer and demand a live video feed. Never presume that a) your baby will stay asleep during the show or b) when they make sound you can make a beeline for the exit in time. I know this makes me sound like a bitter barren spinster but theatre relies heavily on the actor audience relationship and babies aren’t ready for that journey yet.
7. The saving a seat policy in those theatres without allocated seating is a tricky beast, especially if you are saving lots of seats. I say take pot luck. If you can’t stick together as a group, you’re on your own buddy. Chances are you have seriously under-estimated the size of 4 bottoms and the whole row are going to suffer as a consequence and if your friends have sent you in as the scout because they want to leisurely make their way up and would rather not be seen with you, this may be very telling of your relationship. Get some friends who will at least enter the theatre with you at the same time and not use you as their personal seat saving assistant. Demand equal status by claiming the best seat, shrug smarmily when they finally grace the space with their presence and let them fend for themselves.
8. Now let’s talk about personal space. I’m not a big girl and don’t need a whole lot of space but gee, when the person sitting next to me decides to encroach upon my space, watch me grow in my spatial demands. If you’re a fattyboomsticks, I can forgive you up to a point that your needs are a bit out of your control. But it’s the medium-sized space stealers that annoy me the most. Legs sprawling, arm-rest stealers, bags on seats makes me want to hit you. You are not in your lounge room. Here you are expected to share. Stay in your space, buy two seats or at least buy me dinner first if we’re going to get that intimate.
9. Stop pretending the show was fantastic if you didn’t actually understand it. Admit it was flawed. A great production of a Shakespeare play will transcend and communicate the language and ideas to an audience member who is illiterate, blind or intellectually disabled. A bad production will leave a highly-educated audience member none the wiser. It is the same with all theatre, whether it be physical, mime, epic, absurdist, verbatim, post-modernist, etc. It can be visually engaging but leave you hollow. Stop pretending you enjoyed it because you’re scared people will think you’re an idiot if you say you didn’t get it. At least it will promote some healthy discussion of the arts and their ability to connect and program for their audiences instead of blindly pursuing their own agenda with the same tired old artists.
10. You know when I said I was going to be kind to the ‘artists’ by leaving them out of this equation? I lied. The last and most important point is to present something to your audience that includes them in the theatrical journey and doesn’t cater just for the director and his two wanking faux-intellectual mates. When your audience leave the theatre mumbling the question “What was that about?” all your visual performance art trickery has not delivered the narrative. Regardless of form & style, most plays still have a message or narrative that need to be delivered, especially in the mainstream. Don’t lose it. Enhance. Start with the text and go from there instead of trying to fit the text into your tricks or you will be in danger of presenting the same performance in each production, regardless of the actual play.
I’m sure you will have more you can add to the list and I encourage you to do so. If we can train our audiences to respect the unwritten contract between actors and audience and each other, hopefully we can get our artists to do the same and become one big happy theatre family.