November 7, 2009

A friend of mine went to see Chicago at the Whitney recently, and reports the unfortunate experience of a man sitting nearby loudly chewing ice throughout Act Two. Chewing ice. (Audience members were permitted to bring drinks obtained during intermission into the show.) It amazes me that it never crossed this man's mind that maybe no one else wanted to hear that grinding crunching sound. More likely, it did and he just didn't care.

Giving a lesson in theatre etiquette in this short-attention-span 21st century is probably a pointless task, in the spirit of the old adage, "Never try to teach a pig to sing - it only wastes your time and annoys the pig." Nevertheless, here we go, once more unto the breach, dear piggies:

  • It goes without saying that cellphones should be silenced, but it also means they should stay out of sight. I've seen people text messaging or checking their messages during a show, and the light from their phone's monitor is extremely annoying and distracting. I also hear people's phone vibrating a lot during shows. Don't just put them on vibrate, people - turn them OFF completely. Can't you freaks stop twiddling around with your cancer-causing wireless toys for just two hours of your life?
  • Just because a theatre allows drinks and snacks doesn't mean you shouldn't try to consume them as silently as possible. Have you ever noticed that people seem to think that the act of unwrapping a candy or a coughdrop will be less annoying if they do it painstakingly slowly? In truth, a slowly unwrapped candy is just as noisy as a quickly unwrapped one, and makes noise for a lot longer!
  • Babies don't belong in theatres. They just don't. (Personally, I don't even think they belong in restaurants. If I ever open a restaurant, I'm going to have a separate soundproof room way in the back to keep the breeders isolated.)
  • It may sound odd to call people out for excessive laughing during a comedy, but I've been to more than one show where there was a person, or cluster of persons, seemingly forcing laughter at an unnatural volume, over and over and over to the point of distraction. Either the house planted them as shills, or they're good friends of one of the actors and are trying way too hard to show support. Just be natural when you see a show, and don't continually try to "stick out" with your reactions. Curtain call's an exception, of course - that is your time to go completely berserk and yell "woo!" to your heart's content!
  • Don't talk during shows. Seems like a no-brainer, I know. (I would say "act as if you're in a library," but apparently no one cares if you're loud in libraries anymore.)
  • If you're sick, sorry about your luck, but don't come to the show. I was at a show recently where someone in the front row kept hacking and wheezing, and I could see the tiny droplets being expelled by their face each time. Go home!
  • If you're cranky, angry, or being dragged by a friend to a show you don't want to see, don't go see it. Watching a play is not like watching a movie on DVD. Each performance of a play is a live, one-of-a-kind special event that will never ever happen again exactly the same way again, and if you don't appreciate it for what it is, you need to go do something else instead. It's especially important in a smaller venue to be positive and receptive and take part in the spirit of things, and not bring others down who are gifted with greater ability for enthusiasm than you. When I saw the SITI Company do Under Construction, there were some grumps in the front row whose body language and sourpuss expressions made it clear they were hating every minute of being there. (Fortunately, the SITI folks took special glee in focusing on those Eeyores to talk to during the audience participation segment, wherein the actors ask blunt and embarrassing sexual questions to audience members!)

    On the other hand, there are things that the theatres themselves can do to be more considerate of their audiences as well:

  • Strobe lights suck. Even if you're not an epileptic, strobe lights can still induce migraines and disorientation and they're just plain not good for you. Besides, they're really cheesy and played-out. Let's ditch 'em.
  • If your show necessitates warnings, put the warnings on ALL ads, flyers, and notices. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten to the door of a show and just as I'm about to hand my ticket over, I notice a sign that says "Warning: contains strobe lights, extremely loud noises, smoke, harsh language and nudity" in a tiny font. That's a hell of a thing to drop on someone who's just driven across town to see the show after seeing an ad that mentioned none of these important caveats.
  • Seats in theatres feel as if they're built for one-armed children. Paradoxically, the fancier the venue, the worse the seats tend to be: the Whitney has, hands down, the most hellish seating in Louisville, yet at the MeX everyone has their own individual chair and they don't have to share an armrest with someone.
  • Directors: blocking has a purpose. Study it. Use it. I've been to shows where only half the audience is getting a watchable show, and the rest of us are looking at everyone's backs. Even the most amateur of directors should be able to notice when sight lines are practically nil, and then take steps to correct it. A good play is not measured in how much a director puts into it, but by how much an audience can get out of it.
  • Don't skimp on refreshments. Even in this economy, it won't kill you to spring for real Oreos and not some Dollar Tree off-brand. And don't you dare charge money for them.

    Okay, got all that? Now get out there, soldier, and treat your fellow theatregoer with love, kindness, courtesy and respect.... or I'll knock you upside the head! Semper Fi. Oo-rah.

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    Jeffrey Scott Holland is the Artistic Director for Catclaw Theatre Company, author of Weird Kentucky on Sterling Press, and painter whose works have been exhibited worldwide. Visit him on the web at