Ms A's Guide To Theatre Etiquette ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ms A's Guide To Theatre Etiquette

I see that Dr Peter West, retired university lecturer and social commentator, is in today's Age fulminating on the bad manners of Young People at the Opera and the Consequent Decline and Fall of Civilisation. Apparently nobody obeys Rules any more. It's all the fault of entitled young people with their newfangled phones, according to Dr West. Or possibly people on drugs. Anyway, I was inspired, and decided to list some Rules of my own.

Ms A herewith releases her own Manifesto for Properly Behaved Theatre Patrons.

It's all quite simple, really.

One Rule To Rule Them All And In The Darkness Bind Them: Remember that you are in the same room as a lot of other people, including actors, who can both see and hear you.

All else follows from this.

Rule 1: Turn off any electronic devices about your person, and leave them off. Embarrassment Moment No. 1 is your phone ringing during a play. An actor might even break the fourth wall and comment on your solecism from the stage, thus holding you up to public mockery and ridicule.

Rule 2. Checking email, Twitter, messages and so on during the show is right out. Lighting designers spend a lot of time getting their lighting right, and a constant bloom of flickering smartphones in the auditorium stuffs it right up, especially in that carefully crafted blackout. And no, you're not allowed to take photos.

Rule 3. Even if everything that is happening on stage makes you shrivel with horror and/or boredom, refrain from expressing your outrage and disappointment out loud until the show is finished. Unless, that is, you are invited by the performers to do so, in which case go right ahead.

Rule 4. If the boredom, horror and detestation get overwhelming and you have to leave, do so with as little disturbance to your fellow audience members as possible. Does the rest of the audience need to know how appalled you are? No. They might even be enjoying themselves.

Rule 5. You don't really need to discuss Aunt Madge's terrible disease in a loud whisper with your neighbour during the climactic moments. Really, you don't. Other people can hear you, and would Aunt Madge be comfortable with that?

Rule 6. Leave your handicrafts at home. No knitting, crocheting or whittling allowed.

Rule 7. Even the best-intentioned theatre goers can be ambushed by a cough. Carry a kit of Anticol and tissues. If you have a very bad coughing fit that can't be controlled, leave the theatre until it is over.

Rule 8. Never take a child under 11 to adult theatre, unless you are very sure he or she will enjoy it. It's not fair on the child, you, the rest of the audience or the performers.

Rule 9. Take - but don't force - children over 11 to the theatre, after impressing upon them (with threats if necessary) that they can be seen and heard by other patrons and the actors. Discuss the show with them beforehand (so they have some idea what to expect) and answer their questions afterwards. Not during the show.

Rule 10. If you fall asleep, don't snore. Make a pact with a companion to wake you up if your snorts start rippling through the auditorium. Speaking of which: isn't the theatre an expensive place for a snooze?

Rule 11. Don't snack. Especially don't snack on chips or anything that rustles or crackles. I promise you will not starve to death.

Rule 12. Silence in a theatre is okay. Really, it is.

Did I miss anything?


Nicholas Pickard said...

Oh Alison, I don't know. I've been to performances in Italy, community shows in Marrickville and concession shows at Belvoir where the audience talks, cheers, groans, eats and each of them felt felt like a real theatrical experience.

The audience switch off when they're bored, become enthralled when it's electric.

Never is the to-and-fro between the audience and the actors more evident than in those moments.

All these rules are all rather hoity toity.

Anonymous said...

My peeve is audience members who think they are still at home in front of the TV and feel they can discuss the action freely with their companion!
That and the caring companion who describesall the action to their blind friend!

I want to hear the actors not the audience

Unknown said...

THANK YOU!!! I am appaled that there are people out there that even need to be reminded of this. I have been to a performance where Noni Hazelhurst had to break character to give the biggest death stare to the most rude, loud and obnoxious audience member I had the displeasure of sitting in front of.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Nick - you know very well that I am Ms Hoity Toity. I broadly agree with you, fwiw, in terms of the electricity of theatre existing in the energy between performers and audience.

Josie, I do think audio describing for the blind doesn't count. In that case, forebearance is a virtue: should blind people be banned from theatre?

Anonymous said...

I'm often surprised at the smell of people in the theatre.

Usually bald, white, gluten-intolerant intellectuals from the inner west who have cycled into town -

Or old people in autumn with their mothball coats.

Ban them all.

Anonymous said...

To the man in front of me at The Doll: You probably don't need to constantly refer to the script. I know it was nice that the script was provided in Belvoir's program, but it wasn't so you could make sure they weren't skipping lines.

Chris Kohn said...

In ten years time, ninety per cent of audience members in any given show will be actively connected to the outside world by a smart device or similar, simultaneously engaged with the show inside and the world outside the theatre. Theatre, as a mutable artform, will have evolved to accommodate this. Discuss.

Alison Croggon said...

Well, tweet seats are now a thing. And absolitely, there are infinite ways ahead of using techonology in interesting ways in the theatre.

All the same, I still fail to see what's wrong with a bunch of people in a room all paying attention at the same time to the same thing. Maybe our world could do with a bit of that. Nor can I see that it's tryannical to ask people to be aware of each other in a space and modify their behaviour accordingly. Or is there really no such thing as society?

sancz said...

I performed in a show at the TAP (a very intimate theatre in Sydney) a couple of years ago and a blind friend of mine came and sat in the front row, it was fine, nobody minded someone discreetly describing the actions to him where appropriate.

NB: turning the phone onto "silent" does not cut it, as alarms can still go off (this happened during the final scene of Titus Andronicus the other day, patron lucky to leave the theatre with both of their hands).

on tweet seats, I guess, if the venue allows it... but I would want a discount to be seated near them.

otherwise if there's a sign up saying "please turn off your mobile phones" then what's the problem? it says "no Flash Photography" at The Louvre, do you think they tolerate people breaking that rule?

Oh, and snogging in the front row is poor form... I saw the aftermath of this in the foyer of The Old Fitzroy when some actors took the offending audience to task. Almost as entertaining as the show itself!

Anonymous said...

Grate post! thanks for sharing your opinion. I would continue reading your posts!

Anonymous said...

Are tweet seats still a thing? I thought they came and went in about three months, never to be seen again... I'm fairly certain no theatre in Sydney does them any more (the STC did once, for August: Osage County, and that was it, I think).

Alison Croggon said...

I presume Anon The Latest is satirising spam posts?

Tweet seats with free wifi - presumably with protection for other audients - is still a thing. I just don't understand why it would be interesting to do. Unless the show was teeth-achingly dull.

Alison Croggon said...

I'm enjoying reading everyone's favourite irrit, btw.

notintheseshoes said...

Oh Alison! THANK YOU. All of the above drives me mental, ESPECIALLY when it's older patrons offending. (Sorry.) As an under-25 regularly attending mainstage theatre you're sometimes given a "Oh, grandma brought you along!" vibe from other patrons who then proceed to crackle, whisper, nudge and fidget all the way through the show, which drives me bananas because my seats are often purchased at my own expense, which, even with generous Under-30 prices, still represents a higher proportion of my disposable weekly income than their ticket did for them. So. Rude. And. ENTITLED.

There's a difference between an audience reacting to and participating in a show - cheers, hisses, gasps, all that, which is great and I often find on display at the best school matinees - and, as you say, forgetting they are not at home in front of the TV. (Though frankly people who talk through TV watching make me pretty stabby too. We're all watching the same thing! We KNOW what he just said!)

I think at the heart of this behaviour is the refusal by some audience members to allow art to interrupt their lives. I know that sounds really wanky, but it was a thought that occurred to me during a couple of outdoor/public/interactive performances I've seen recently. The visible discomfort you see in some people's faces and bodies when performers get physically close or invite the audience into their space, and the need many have to put a screen (a camera, an iPhone, whatever) between them and that experience is really interesting and I think kind of worrying. People talking, fidgeting, whatever during theatre shows stems from the same discomfort and refusal to surrender, even momentarily, to a different set of rules and logics, as if they're terrified of what will happen to them if they have to put their phone down and keep their thoughts to themselves for two hours. Too harsh? Bridge too far? What do you all think?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Ms Notintheseshoes: I don't think you're harsh. I think that denial-of-where-they-are is often the case, and that's the kind of stuff that can make you angry, especially when you're absorbed in a show and something wrenches you out of that concentration. I'm thinking, for example, of a woman, maybe about 50, in the back of the Beckett during a matinee of MOTH - a riveting and intimate piece of theatre - who kept loudly expressing scorn because the play didn't make sense. Well, it was about someone having a major breakdown... Maybe she just hated young people. I don't know. Of course, some kinds of work can ride such heckling, but why you feel moved to do that during that kind of show escapes me.

And yes, older people can be among the worst offenders.

Sean Mee said...

No. no. no. Theatre was never meant to be like this. This is a modern construct to entitle the performers and appease the erudite.

Why is it that only the actor/characters can be chaotic, idiosyncratic... messy. People should eat. They should drink. They should come and go as they please. They should engage, participate, be opinionated. Fights should break out.

The boxes of boredom we call theatres, the 'shut up, I'm acting' declarations, the insistence on passive consumption... It's what so far away from theatre's true potential and truly, why the vast majority of people can't engage.

In theatre for small children, you would exercise these 'rules' at your peril. It must embrace everything the audience is, right there, right now. Either you privilege (celebrate, even) the audience's presence, allow them to be what they are; chaotic, flighty, excited, uncertain, noisy, democratic... or you try to tell them to shut up, sit down and be quiet and the performance becomes about that... the shhhing.... the fascist control.

As described to me, the difference between entertainment and theatre is that, in entertainment, if the audience wasn't going off their heads (screaming yelling, dancing, crying), then the performance had failed. In other words, it was all about the audience. In most of modern theatre, it's hardly about them at all (... largely... I'm making a generalisation to make a larger point).

Is it really too hard to create theatre that doesn't require silencing or disemfranchising the audience from their right to actively participate in order for it to function?

Obviously, this is a provocation.

Alison Croggon said...

Provoke all you like. You are right, of course, in important ways. But then... what about spaces for collective contemplation, awe, sorrow, astonishment - all things that happen most profoundly in silence? Is silence so bad in a theatre? Is silence really disenfrachisement, or can it be an admission into another kind of freedom, a meeting with a self obscured by all the bright noisy trash that assails us every day? Is that calling for passive obedience, or is it an active exercise of the soul?

Alison Croggon said...

PS: I don't know of theatres who don't care about their audiences. Seriously. Any examples?

plumpes Denken said...

Love that those last couple of comments from Sean and Alison are diametrically opposed and both right.

Sean Mee said...

Did I deny silence? It's just I believe that you don't need to demand acquiescence. If the silence was an agreement between the audience and the performance, if the silence was demanded by the experience, then it's the same as anything. None of things you describe are impossible. However, if an audience member (a child in this case) witnesses the demise of a puppet character (for example) not with contemplative silence, but with a cry of, "What just happened?" Why?", I know what would happen.

All responses should be possible, permissible, allowed, celebrated, everyone's presence acknowledged. So here's the thing, when do we introduce theatre as an essential part of our culture and how do we do that? By excluding children until they're over 10 and because they know how "to behave"?

As for caring about audiences, I was talking about control, the rules, the manipulation, a validated (archaic) construct. In a wider context, even those who cruelly exploit their power, do so in the steadfast belief that they care deeply.

Alison Croggon said...

Well, I was specifically and overtly talking about adult theatre, and especially about the kind of stage experience in which an audience is extended an invitation to pay attention. Theatre made specifically for children is a different deal; and the behaviour of children is actually a completely different issue. In the same way that children should not be tried in adult courts, children should not be forced to endure stuff that will - no matter how bright they are - bore them. I think it's often done in the mistaken belief that it will be "good for them", but I reckon it's a great way of putting a child off theatre for life.

Fwiw, I've taken all my kids to adult theatre since they were old enough to deal with sitting in the dark concentrating on something for a couple of hours (as I said above, I reckon about 11) and I told them Teh Roolz. They are all keen - and I might add, well-informed - theatre goers as young adults. And they are hardly repressed in their responses. Far from it.

All theatre is manipulative, no? In fact, all art is: it seeks to manipulate the feelings and thoughts of its audiences. It needn't mean that it's authoritarian, nor that it's controlling: it depends on what that manipulation is, and what it's for. On the whole, I find the kind of coarse manipulativeness of "entertainment" (I also dislike the false distinction between "art" and "entertainment", as if art is not entertaining) can be a lot more sinister than the manipulativeness of, say, Beckett, since so often it is about affirming just those values you claim to dislike.

But I'm talking about something else, which is an awareness of other people in a room. Theatre demands the breaking down of a narcissistic bubble in which only the solitary ego exists, in order for there to be a communal experience of something. I think all responses to theatre are valid; I just happen to dislike those that disrupt and derail the responses of others in the moment. Sometimes it's because people simply don't know what to do and feel that they are in an alien environment. (In which case, some common sense guidelines are probably the best way to make them feel at ease.) In any case, I think you mistake this kind of awareness for a demand for servitude or obedience. It's not.

Alison Croggon said...

Missed you up there, Plumpes Denken. Yay for negative capability!

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison I probably should have been clearer, I am not banning blind people, just their loud audio describers!I have performed in plays where the actors had to compete with an audience member describing their every move,it's disconcerting for performer and audience.

Born Dancin' said...

My thoughts on all this are pretty well known to anyone who's ever been in bleating distance of me, so apologies if I'm repeating myself. I agree with both Sean and Alison, though.

Historically, the 'disciplined' audience is a pretty recent phenomenon and centres on a particular cultural sphere. Read Melbourne theatre reviews from only a century ago and you'll notice that the audience at a performance is discussed as much as the show itself. Further back you have audiences sitting on stage during operas, or talking back to actors during Shakespeare, calling for encores of particularly strong scenes (imagine MTC repeating a bit of Earnest because of a clamouring crowd!). You had drama extending beyond the theatre - everyone should read up on the Astor Place riots of 1849, where more than 10,000 theatre fans engaged in a mass street battle over competing productions of Macbeth. At these points of history we can't consider the 'meaning' of theatre without looking at its social context, though we can easily (and do) consider a theatre production in a hermetically sealed bubble today.

The emergence of the civil audience has a lot to do with the cult of etiquette which became popular in the late 19th century, and which in turn is profoundly connected to class distinctions in industrialised society. Manners here meant a growing bifurcation of public and private life, and a whole range of behaviours (eating, spitting, farting, coughing) very quickly became acceptable only in specific settings (usually behind closed doors). If attending the theatre had once been a kind of public performance, it was now a performance of a different kind - one in which proving that you understood certain rules of politeness asserted your knowledge of refined cultural codes. You could argue this is still the case today. If kids are an unruly threat to a performance, it's because they haven't learnt these codes.

Compare the audience at an A.R.A.B. dance show and a Chunky Move performance; or consider the audience at a pub rock gig and the crowd at a Bennett's Lane jazz gig (where silence is strictly enforced). The different energy and performer/audience dynamics here don't just spring up organically, but are produced.

BUT: I'm not saying we should return to a point where throwing tomatoes was a democratic form of criticism.

(part 1 of 2)

Born Dancin' said...

(Second exciting instalment in a series of two)

While the orderly audience is intimately connected with forms of social control, the sacralisation of the art object has also brought inestimable benefits - there is some theatre that demands contemplation and concentration, some music is best received in absolute silence, and so on. (Some) people make art that's meant to be considered in this way, and should be. I'm not arguing that anyone should be free to do anything they want as an audience member - or, at least, if you're going to break the social contract you have to wear the angry responses that may entail.

I do find it kinda funny that the passive audience is so much the norm today that artists have to work hard to shake people out of that mould - live art, for instance. Live art couldn't have emerged in an era where art was by necessity live, or a complete failure.

Then again, consider the audience's at Wagner's own Festspielhaus in Beyreuth. In 1876 Mark Twain made the pilgrimage and noted that "you detect no movement in the solid mass of heads and shoulders. You seem to sit with the dead in the gloom of a tomb. You know that they are being stirred to the profoundest depths... yet you hear not on utterance...". Another journalist wrote that applause at the end of a performance Bayreuth was "not only unnecessary but intolerable".

Applause! Intolerable!

Operatical correctness gone mad, I tell you. I'm all for it.

Here endeth today's lecture.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks John. I agree with all your contradictions.

Alison Croggon said...

There's also the robust European tradition of riots and even revolutions being sparked by plays - or even operas!

Born Dancin' said...

Some situationist film screenings in Paris caused audiences to rip seats from the floor. Who goes "this movie is too weird! Let's all trash the joint! RAAAAARGH!"

Peacockgoose said...

Good discussion. Chris Kohn makes a fine and as ever, contemporary provocation. And my response would that... yes, it will change. As it always has. The discussion here is largely 'chatter' borne of evolution and the recent expectation that there exists a 'contract' between audience and performers. BURN THE CONTRACT - theatre will survive dammit. I know... there are depths to this question but, really. from countless experiences, when the THEATRE ITSELF is doing its job, EVERYBODY is engaged. Over and over again this is true - it's why we do it, isn't it? To find, experience and repeat that?

But I do love a bit of chatter...

Ms Croggon, you're always opening doors and I thank you for it.

Alison Croggon said...

I've always been of the opinion that rules are made to be broken. But it helps if you know what they are in the first place.

I admit freely to being bourgeois to the back teeth. Can't help it, that's who I am, no point denying it, etc. (Most revolution over the past 400 years has been from the bourgeois, for what it's worth). And also to harboring homicidal feelings towards the odd audience member. Because the fact is that a theatre company can do it all right and in good faith and engage almost every member of the audience and there will still be someone checking their emails on their Blackberries. That's human beings for you.

plumpes Denken said...

Oh yes - just on Born Dancing's comments - riots were there in European modernist theatre but also bring to mind Irish Revivial and riots around Synge's Playboy of the Western World and later O'Casey's Plough and the Stars. Interestingly, in both modernist and revivalist cases it was usually the fiercely defended morality of the bourgeois audience taking offence that caused riot and disruption -- so I suspect there was more to it than freely expressed democratic exuberance prior to restraints of etiquette and civility. Or rather some of that lack of restraint was in reaction to an audience being challenged by a democratic vision that they didn't want to hear or see.

Anonymous said...

On the matter of theatre etiquette, texting was a point of some tension between students, teachers and theatre staff. It was, however, not restricted to young people. Students texting during performance could be simply put down to a lapse in theatre etiquette, but there was some indication that a proportion of the texting was conversation directly concerned with the play as a whole and specific moments within it.
—The Theatrespace Report
check it out at

Anonymous said...

As an actor I hate the idea of people talking/texting/eating/doing-anything-but-concentrating while i am in the middle of working. People think they can do anything they like these days, but the fact for me remains, that I like my work to be seen, heard & appreciated. I take my work seriously & try to breathe life into what I do to serve the life of the moment & of the event.

On a higher level, any artistic work that strives to take those who see on a journey of some sort, deserves, for that very brief time, the respect of concentration & complicity that is required in performance between spectator & actor. Between living human beings, between the invisible imaginings of those who do & those who witness. The most profound theatre experience actually happens BETWEEN two groups: performers & witnesses. Don’t louse it up as a spectator by disrespecting the work of creative teams of people trying to construct, with care & sensitivity, something rich for all to experience.

This has nothing to do with audience acquiescence but all to do with active & creative complicity. By complicity I don’t mean only silence, I mean the cheers & groans too. If the work is bad it will be self-evident. If the work is good, how sublime it would be from that sort of complicity from both actor & witness. It is that bond that creates theatre, our individuated imaginings colliding in the space between us that allows us to scale the greatest heights, whether in comedy or tragedy – the creation of life from what is inert. If an audience member felt so compelled to come forward & make a statement during the performance, so be it. But that is very different from the casual passive-aggressive spatting that takes place in the dark somewhere out there in an audience. That is a cowardly act. And it makes most actors seethe, because as you can clearly hear us, we can hear you.

Can you imagine what would happen in delicate heart surgery, if in the middle of a particularly difficult procedure, a couple of the surgeons took their concentration off the life & death of the moment & decided to text, or someone from outside wanders in talking & spitting out crisps that happen to land right in the area being worked on? Yet creative work can be just as fragile, just as precise, & often it’s greatest offering is intangible & invisible. It lives & dies within a certain frame of time in the act of doing. It is of the moment. And how can that moment truly live when even one audience member’s unbridled ego & habit get in the way of pure communication for everyone else?

How audiences have evolved over time, what social forces created certain tensions, the politics of the day, etc, are all very interesting. But they matter not a jot in the moment of performance. The over-riding criterion, every time, is the same - either the work lives or dies. The forces of the moment are a culmination of many elements: the choice of material, the way it is handled, the breadth & quality of collaborative imaginations & the overarching vision involved, the practical choices made to give shape to substance, the skill & inhabitation of the actors, & ultimately that alchemical meeting which develops when what is being created is further enriched when witnessed by a larger group.

It is QUALITY of vision & performance, matched by quality of attention, that creates burning theatre, nothing else matters. Nothing else sticks inside you years later when your body/mind memory recalls the moment. Least of all what the audience is doing, you can see that anytime you like, any day of the week. Just look outside. Theatre is constructed & is an entirely different animal. And profoundly more demanding.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi PD: My point was a glib one: Marx had servants. You're right that many of the riots were sparked by an outraged bourgeoisie - think of the responses to Genet's plays. Though there was an obscure opera about rebellious fishermen, as I learned on Spicks and Specks the other night, that ignited the 1830 revolution in Brussells, and there's Vaclav Havel and the Velvet Revolution. And of course the whole history of revolution and theatre in France, from the split of the Comedie Francaise into the Theatre de Republique vs the monarchist set during the Revolution to the barricades of 1968 and the formation of the Cartoucherie theatres, including Mnouchkine's Theatre de Soleil. Or the Belarus Free Theatre today. Or the theatre of Meyerhold, Brecht et al... Ie, theatre has often acted as a burning glass in European society.

Hi Anon Actor:

If an audience member felt so compelled to come forward & make a statement during the performance, so be it. But that is very different from the casual passive-aggressive spatting that takes place in the dark somewhere out there in an audience.

Yes. It is.

plumpes Denken said...

Yes of course - I'd very much want to recognise the link between theatre and rebellion. My comments just a riff on Born Dancin's comment. I guess the bourgeois audience were moralistic and narrow but because politically marginalised were also rebellious. The link between theatre and rebellion also there in the way Abbey Theatre actors moved between plays about Irish nationalism to participating in the 1916 Uprising outside. Remember the line from Yeats: 'Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?'

Eugyeene said...

I was guilty of possibly contributing to a 'chorus of coughs' when I went to see the sensorially charged Pindrop, yes, but in my defense, I had already missed the first season and couldn't miss it again due to great reviews (one of which from TN.) And I came wielding a melange of cough-supressing helpers like tissues, handkerchiefs, pre-unwrapped (important!) and lined up on my lap Anticol, and I allowed myself to cough only during the incredibly loud bits. When I did, the man sitting next to me would turn to me and stare. And he would tsk me. I missed the whole point of the show because I was too concerned about having upset this man. The coughs were unavoidable, but I wonder if this kind of response is unwarranted, or even rude. Don't we all tolerate the few coughers at every show? On another level, I recently acquired a gentleman friend who, when i bring him to the theatre, insists that the environment for the audience should be more like Brechtian epic theatre, and that we should be allowed to have discussions, walk around and socialize, walk out to the bar to buy beer. At first, I merely fobbed him off with 'Theatre etiquette,' 'common courtesy,' 'untimely' and things like that, but I'm running out of weak conformist-type arguments, and I'm afraid he will show up in the theatre next time with roast chicken.

Alison Croggon said...

I sympathise, Eugyeene. I've had those moments too, and they are agonising. Tolerance and forebearance towards human frailities should also be aspirations of the Ideal Audient. This is why the misbehaviour of young children taxed beyond their capacities doesn't count. Entitlement can run all ways. (I realise I am in acute danger of sounding like one of Jane Austen's heroines, or perhaps a heroine's aunt.)

As for your gentleman friend, he does sound like a bracing theatrical challenge, and perhaps good for all of us. That's what Kabuki theatre is like, apparently, so perhaps you could take him to Tokyo.

Alison Croggon said...

... and thanks for the reminder of one of my favourite poems, PD. It prompted me to go back and reread it. I have a vivid memory of Patrick Alexander reciting it in a pub somewhere, one of the most riveting recitations I've seen.

Zane Trow said...

Since 2004 I have, in every performance undertaking, asked that both performers and audiences leave their mobile phones on, and that they should feel free to answer if they so wish.

When one rings we wait, it is only polite, until the call is completed.

This policy simply does two things:

1) Allows the (outside) world to exist..

2) Stops everyone worrying about what to do if one rings

It has produced remarkable outcomes, one of many might be the time that a performers boyfriend rang to let her know his footy team was winning at the game he was attending. We then decided to pump the phone thru a microphone and listened to the sound of the game for a bit. Then we got on with the show.

Nobody has ever complained about this policy, many have thanked us for it.

It's only one way to deal of course, but it has helped tremendously.

plumpes Denken said...

Thinking about this more after last night's frivolous Twitter exchange about going to the theatre without pants -I'm thinking how modernist theatre/literature sought some dialectical leap to find its audience, ie part of what it sought to "make new" was the audience itself. (More Yeats: "in scorn of this audience" he writes for "A man who does not exist, A man who is but a dream".) I assume creation of a new audience can involve both "screaming, yelling, crying" as well as "contemplation, awe, sorrow, astonishment". In a sense, the different forms of reaction shouldn't matter as much as the larger transformative aspect of great theatre.

Parts of the conversation here seem to be talking about different things. Perhaps acquiescence is a problem with modern theatre. And perhaps there is also a kind of selfish and distracted strain of 'anything goes' not just among the theatre-going public. And issues of acquiescence and distraction get further jumbled when children are brought into it. Anyway, I still think you get at something important here with the idea of breaking down the narcissistic bubble and solitary ego in favour of something more communal (perhaps a serious point tucked into a frivolous suggestion about rules and etiquette?). This seems a bare minimum condition for an audience that's not to be passively acted upon but also open to thinking/seeing anew.

notintheseshoes said...

After watching Gross und Klein at STC last night, I am reminded of another pet hate, and one that is sure to draw contradictory responses: untimely clapping.

As the daughter of two classical musicians (and therefore dragged to Sydney Symph concerns before I could walk, probably to the chagrin of our fellow concertgoers but no doubt to the advantage of my performance etiquette in the long run ;-)) the rule about not clapping between movements was drilled into me from before I can even remember. The logic behind this convention, as far as I can tell, is that a. a symphony (or concerto, or quartet) is a sum of its parts -- applause at the conclusion of each part can stop you from appreciating the whole. And b. It's bloody distracting for musicians, especially soloists or chamber musicians who are carrying big, big music by themselves, and possibly need to play all sorts of tricks on their own brains to forget there are hundred, sometimes thousands of people watching them go at it. This is a generally accepted behavioral convention in classical music, and yes, I know it's different for things like jazz where if you *don't* clap after each solo you're doing it wrong. But personally -- and I expect to be howled down by some on this one -- I think most theatrical performances (i.e. text based works that take place in venues we call theatres in which audiences sit, hopefully in silence) are more like a symphony than a jazz gig, and so perhaps some of the same conventions should be observed.

Which is why clapping at the end of climactic scenes drives me totally insane. I feel like it disrupts the flow of action, forces me out the experience I'm having with what's happening on stage, and makes it about the audience's need to demonstrate they have sufficiently "appreciated" or "understood" something "important."

Take, for instance, the opening scene of G&K, in which Cate Blanchett, as Lotte, delivers a long, stream of consciousness monologue. It's a great performance, but it's just the beginning of a long play. And yet when the lights went down on that scene the packed Sydney Theatre (I think it seats 800?) felt the need to have a bit of a clap. To me, it felt less like a spontaneous expression of enjoyment and more like a desperation to demonstrate their worship at the altar of Cate. I liked Cate lots too, but I wanted to see the rest of the play before passing any judgement.

Further on clapping -- audiences that clap before the lights have even gone down! What's with that? Again, that happened last night; again, I felt it stopped me (and any number of others who weren't clapping) from staying with the work right until it's final, quiet, thought-provoking moment; *again* I hypothesize that it's tied to those members of the audience feeling a desperate, unconscious need to demonstrate to one another their learnedness, a sort of peacockery of cultural capital.

There's probably not anything to be done about this. I mean you can warn against mobile phones and coughing in signs and programs and announcements, but you can hardly say, "Please refrain from applause until approximately ten seconds after the final light has died." Can you? Can you encourage people to understand there are hundreds of other people in the audience with them who might not be ready for the show to be over yet?

Born Dancin' said...

Oh yes, I sometimes think the rapturous applause that erupts immediately after certain larger productions sound a bit "that was good but I'd rather be off home now thank you". As opposed to those productions where everyone sits in silence and darkness absorbing what they've witnessed. There was one piece last year (Acts of Deceit at La Mama) where the post-show pause stretched out to at least a minute, probably several, and it felt like eternity. As if no one was willing to be the person announcing "this experience is over". Which is a pretty good result.

I also saw an article recently on bands who refuse to play encores unless the audience really, really demands it. I feel the same way about the multiple-bows routine after shows end, I guess. Ya gotta earn it.

Alison Croggon said...

That's a bugbear of mine, too. I find the applause that greets the appearance of a celebrity in a play, before they've done a single thing besides walk onto the stage, pretty grating. And it's so weird, that rush to applaud at the finish: I've never understood it. It's great when everything is just swept away by the power of a show. The silence I remember particularly was after Food Court: it finished, and I swear that people were sitting there for almost 30 seconds, breathless and stunned, before they applauded. And did they applaud.

Still, it's hard to grudge applause. Think of Prospero's speech: "Release me from my bands / With the help of your good hands: / Gentle breath of yours my sails / Must fill, or else my project fails, / Which was to please..."

Anonymous said...

Yesterday I attended a Q &A with Thomas Ostermeier in London- when asked about the audience and his consideration towards them- he responded that he does not regard them when creating art/programming and nor should he. Possibly the big Australian companies are too precious about their subscription base and should occasionally make decisions that don't habitually pander to the blue rinse set.*
As an actor and theatre maker who has followed your blog for the last year, I was horrified by your theatre etiquette guide. 'Properly behaved theatre patrons?' Please. Throw away your rule book Ms. C. If audiences are not listening- its because the actors are bad, the storytelling is bad, the direction is bad- etc. When it is good enough, the audience WILL sit up and engage.

* "PS: I don't know of theatres who don't care about their audiences. Seriously. Any examples?" (AC)

Alison Croggon said...

I've been surprised by how much interesting discussion my mildly satirical Ms Manners post has sparked. But horror? Why?

Your first point requires a long answer. The short answer is that there is a very great difference between pandering to an audience and caring for an audience. Pandering to an audience - ensuring, for example, that every creative decision is shaped so that no one can possibly be offended, so a perceived audience has everything explained to them or is constantly distracted, and is never made in the slightest way uncomfortable - sometimes seems to me to be something very like contempt. I think that Ostermeier, following on from Brecht, was speaking about that kind of activity in the Q&A. That is certainly not the same as not caring about the audience. Caring about an audience means, first of all, making, for them, the best work you can possibly make: ie, treating an audience with respect.

Casey Bennetto said...

There are several types of audience behaviour being conflated here and I'm not sure they should be. There's the standard audible/visible response to the piece - boos, cheers, applause ("appropriate"/"inappropriate"), exasperated sighs etc - to me these things all speak to an attempt to engage with the piece, successfully or unsuccessfully, so for me they add to the theatrical experience. They're all leaning in, if you like - to berate, to adore, to wince, to cry, whatever.

Now in some respects leaning away is a calculated critical response too; you're not texting someone if you're riveted to the stage. (I don't mean literally riveted to the stage, although that too would make texting tricky.) If, on becoming bored with a piece, people could merrily text in darkness without distracting and disturbing fellow theatregoers, then we'd have a leaning away that would be just as inalienable a right as daydreaming. But we're not there yet; a lit phone on the periphery will immediately, involuntarily draw your eye and attention from the action onstage no matter how good the show is. You can't help it. In this sense it's a pronounced, enforced puncturing of whatever spell a show might be casting.

Now even then I'm sure there are some TheatreNotes readers who say "well, GOOD! Smash the TYRANNY of the suspension of disbelief! Dismantle the antiquated trappings of etc etc etc!" Well, they probably don't say etc etc etc, but you know what I mean. Here's the thing: it's not deliberate. It's not an aggressive act of reclaiming each audient's awareness. It's borne out of ignorance; they don't think anybody else will notice.

Now, anyone who's ever been captivated by a production knows what a precious (and delicate) engagement it can be. The very fact of its rarity means that some degree of disengagement is almost always at play in the theatre, and it finds expression in any number of ways (I can think of a few New Dylans that should have been rigorously "Judas"ed at some stage). But whipping out a lit object "surreptitiously" in a darkened theatre is a brand of ignorance that borders on wilful, stubborn stupidity. It doesn't say "I don't care for this performance" - indeed, someone can be whipping out their mobile to say "OMG Ewen Leslie is HOT 4 REALZ" - it says "I don't care for my fellow audience members". It's the visual equivalent of an overpowering fart in an elevator - satisfying your urge at the expense of everyone else.

But if that kind of disruption were being caused deliberately - even if someone thought "This new Benedict Andrews one is rubbish and I'm going to hire someone to run into the theatre at 9.12pm every night to sing a Ke$ha song on the balcony" - I can see the point of that. If you're gonna piss that many people off, it would help if there's a reason. If you're just doing it accidentally, well, it would help if someone told you, and it would behove you to listen.

But I just used "behove" in a sentence, which more or less disqualifies me from the 21st century, so what would I know? Knock yourselves out. #verfremdunceeffekt

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Casey. Ditto ditto ditto. Wish I'd thought of the analogy of the fart in the elevator...

Anonymous said...

"It's borne out of ignorance; they don't think anybody else will notice."

I think that's what we're encouraging here at its simplest: awareness. My biggest concern as a performer and theatre-goer is that trips to the theatre are such a rare occasion for many people that they simply don't know how to judge what sort of behaviour is appropriate. Different types of behaviour are acceptable in different types of theatre - some plays encourage yelling and booing, some allowing clapping between scenes, some ask audiences to come up on stage - but how can we expect people to ascertain what type of show they've come to when they rarely ever go to the theatre?

Generally when I've come across a badly behaved audience member I've been under the impression that they seriously don't realise that their talking or texting will disturb the rest of the audience and the performers. I think they are used to the cinema experience, where chatting, chewing and texting are common and acceptable. The sort of polite behaviour we think would be 'common sense' no longer applies; our technology-saturated culture is constantly challenging what we used to know as 'good manners'.

So, bar a theatre-in-education style announcement prior to the show, how are we to let our audiences know what we expect from them? This blog post is a start - but sadly I think the people who really need to read it won't be the ones who actually read it!

I feel like it comes back to: get them to go to more theatre! But we've been trying to figure out how to do that for a while now...

Cameron Woodhead said...

Someone's mobile phone rang at the opening night of Kevin Spacey's Richard III, right after interval, with the actors in tableau. Spacey stoppped, smirked nastily, and barked "Tell them we're busy" before continuing. Classy stuff.

I say etiquette be damned, in the theatre or anywhere else. Sure, manners have their place, but the biggest cultural problem in Oz is how pathetically conformist a country we are.

Clap if you enjoyed the show, not because everyone else is doing it. Boo if the show sucked, don't suffer in silence. Fart or cough if you need to, and bugger off if you can't stand the performance.

Polite applause and automatic laughter and diplomatic lies do the artform no favours at all. Be honest in your engagement with the theatre or it demeans the whole enterprise. That's the main thing. However annoying audience distractions at the theatre can be, they're not likely to corrode the quality of the theatre we see in the same way.

Alison Croggon said...

"Diplomatic lies!" Was I suggesting such a thing? I don't think so, indeed. I've argued hotly that what I'm talking about isn't about depressing responsiveness, but rather permitting it to happen.

If anything goes is indeed the rule, I reserve the right to bring my SR-98 rifle and snipe any audience member who offends me. I will use a silencer, of course.

Cameron Woodhead said...

An Sr-98?! Ms. TN seems to have upped in the ante in the last few months... What happened to your tranquilliser gun? (Forgive me: I've just seen The Economist.)

Alison Croggon said...

No doubt it's end of year raggedness. But seriously: if all audience actions are valid, what does that really mean? And if you're not interested in what is happening around you, why bother with theatre the first place? Is there any point in cultivating an audience which doesn't give a toss what is happening around them? (Genuine questions, in case they are taken as rhetorical.)

Cameron Woodhead said...

It isn't that all audience actions are 'valid'. More that people are, well, pretty crap really and in large numbers that's amplified. Most crowds contain idiots behaving in a way that makes my trigger-finger itch. Why should theatre be any different? We can have a big old whinge about it, glare disdainfully at the guy whose phone goes off in the middle of Hamlet's death scene, and use the whole shemoz to whet the blade of our misanthropy through mordant online exchanges, but it won't change anything.

As for how to 'cultivate an audience'? How about the Simon Stone solution: Water the stage with rain twice nightly, and watch the postdramatic enthusiasts bloom before your eyes! ;)

Anonymous said...

My biggest peeve with people in the theatre is eating. I don't necessarily blame the audience members for this, but more the theatre itself for selling food before the show or at interval. It's very annoying for those sitting around the person who is rustling a wrapper or crunching a chip during that moment of silence. Sadly this is just the theatre's way to make more money. I have found that this mostly happens during the big commercial productions as well.

I am all for the audience reacting to the show out loud, but I agree with the comments regarding texting during the show as I find it's an unnecessary distraction for the other audience members. Also when there is an announcement to turn your phone off at the beginning, people should do it. It is annoying to get half way through the climax and hear a phone ringing from behind you, especially when it happens on more than one occasion from the same person.

Troubador said...

I heard a story about what happened when The Royal Court brought a production of Our Country's Good to Australia in the early nineties. In the opening scene a couple of actors entered talking quickly in thick accents. After a couple of minutes someone in the audience yelled out something like :"Slow down! We can't understand a bloody word!" The two actors looked at each other, almost corpsed, then proceeded at a slower pace. Apparently the show was much better for the intervention.

Anonymous said...

As an interesting addition to this blog, Peter Brook once stated, in a "deadly theatre" an audience can be subjected to a play that is a "bearer of a message" in too "conventional" a way. Even in today's theatres, many shows opt for conventional methods of delivery, adapting thematic issues to please a mass audience. It is when theatre is too conventional, that the audience steps in with dramatic utterance - they crave for more depth, exploration or scope to the performance. Discuss.