Theatre etiquette: The response

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This article is a response to that of Will Obeney, which can be found here.

Last month, we saw Will Obeney make the argument that intrusions of modern technology are – amongst other annoyances – signs of a lamentably declining standard in the behaviour of some audience members. He believes more theatre-goers should be aware of their “responsibilities to fellow audience members or those on the stage and behind it”. But do these modern problems faced by the world of theatre betray a saddening decline in the behaviour of audience members, or should the stage adapt to accommodate the changing audience dynamic?

This has been a hot topic of late, with frequent theatre-goer Richard Gresham’s ‘Theatre Charter’ (in which he, like Obeney calls for more respect for conventional audience etiquette) gaining a number of supporters, and perhaps most notably Stephen Fry, whose endorsement propelled the campaign to the limelight. However, others have condemned the Charter and the motivations behind it. The Albany, Deptford, published an article about why they wouldn’t be signing the Theatre Charter, because whilst they “hope that those that attend [their performances] will behave in a fashion that respects our artists and our fellow audience members” they feel that “to formalise this expectation in this way” would damage the relationship the theatre has with its audiences, audiences who might not typically experience the arts, and might already be worried about what to wear or how to behave.

In some ways, I can sympathise with the views expressed by Gresham and his Theatre Charter. I doubt that anyone would really want their phone to ring in the middle of a play, and similarly would react negatively to a disturbance caused by others. However, some other examples of supposed audience misbehaviour show the distinctions between proper and improper etiquette to be less clear-cut. Recent commentators have also attacked audience members for expressing their admiration of Martin Freeman – starring in Richard III at Trafalgar Studios – by cheering or screaming whenever he walked onstage. Plenty of people have seen this as a breach of etiquette, or as an unfortunate consequence of the need for the casting of famous faces. However, in this supposed misdemeanour, I see something far more positive and exciting – new theatre-goers, theatre-goers who are really enjoying themselves. These fans of Freeman have been derided for being there only because of Sherlock or The Hobbit, or only because they fancy the play’s star, or, for what some seem to see as the worst crime of all, being teenage girls.

Of course, the categories ‘fan of Sherlock’ and ‘Shakespeare enthusiast’ are hardly mutually exclusive, even amongst teenagers, but even if we do owe these audience members to a TV show, why is that such a problem? They’re going to a theatre intending to fully enjoy a play, and I would argue this makes them more likely to appreciate the play on its own terms than some seasoned theatre-goers. Also, there’s a high chance that for at least some of these audience members, this is their first or one of their first productions. Rather than tutting at them, or telling them off, it’s important that they, as the new generation of theatre-goers, are made to feel welcome, rather than excluded from an elitist view of the theatre which adheres to codes of which they might be unsure or unaware.

If I had to choose, I’d rather be in an audience full of enthusiastic if somewhat vocal new, young theatre-goers than, as is more often the case, an immaculately behaved crowd of old-timers divorced from any emotional response to the piece. Sometimes, when you’re at a play, a phone will go off. Sometimes someone will cough loudly at a dramatic moment. Sometimes an audience member will react strongly and emotionally to something they see onstage. But theatre is a live art form, and a downside of this impermanence and immediacy is that sometimes someone else might for a moment bring you out of the experience of the play, whether it’s someone rustling sweet rappers, an actor stumbling over their lines, or a friend poking you in the side for the first ten minutes to ask if that’s ‘her from that thing’ playing the lead.

The upside to live theatre is the wonderful fact that, in spite of everything that could go wrong, the actors, the set, the costumes, music, lighting – everything – comes together to create a unique and emotionally involving experience. Occasional disturbances may happen, but if you can’t ignore them outright, shrug them off as part of the experience. You are not the only member of the audience, nor are you the most important, and there is more than one valid way to enjoy the theatre.

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