RN&R’s theater critic gives a lesson in live-show etiquette
It happens at every damn show I attend: the opening of the wrapper. Maybe it’s a potato chip bag or a piece of candy, but I swear, every time I attend a live performance, some person nearby will decide that opening the wrapper reeeeaaaalllyyy slooooowlyyy will make it less bothersome to others. Trust me, it doesn’t. Everyone around you—including the actors—is thinking, “Oh, for the love of God, just OPEN the damn thing already and get on with it!”
There was a time, long ago, when people frequently attended live theater. These people dressed up and left their homes (and telephones) behind, on purpose, to escape for a few hours and give their undivided attention to art.
Things have changed. Those of us who participate in live theater on a regular basis, as artists or audience members, have unfortunately too often seen outlandish behavior on the parts of our fellow attendees.
Not that all change is bad. Breaking down stuffy, old perceptions of live theater as an elite activity and adding casual approachability to the experience may be key to attracting future theatergoers. And, in its 24th year of making art accessible, inviting and, frequently, free, the month-long Artown festival next month may be responsible for influencing a new generation of artists and art lovers.
As July approaches and we begin packing those picnic baskets, filling our calendars and buying tickets, a few of my favorite local theater pros and I want to share a few pearls of wisdom about how to behave during a live show.
Think before you bring it
The rules for what you can bring to a show at Wingfield Park are vastly different from venues like the Pioneer Theater or Reno Little Theater.
If it’s outdoors, check the rules for your venue, which will likely include mentions of acceptable seating, food and drink. Artown offers an online resource to address the rules of its outdoor venues like the Wingfield Park Amphitheater: Artown.org/park-rules. If you’re attending an outdoor performance elsewhere, consult the venue’s website or call the box office to get the lowdown.
“If there are rules about the size of chair you can have or whether you should sit in certain areas, follow those rules,” said Stacey Spain, a playwright, actor, director and theater instructor who heads up Truckee Meadows Community College’s theater department and performing arts troupe. “Everyone around you will have expectations that they will have the same ability to enjoy the performance as you are.”
If you want to bring a high-back chair, feel like dancing or, god forbid, plan to wear a giant sunhat, please head to the back.
This isn’t your living room
Christopher Daniels has seen it all in his years as a Reno actor, comedian and executive director at Goodluck Macbeth theater company—from someone trying to sell molly at the front door to drunken audience members and even one guy vaping up a cloud way in the back corner.
“You want theater to be accessible for everyone and make people feel like it’s not an exclusive outing, but people shout things, take out their phones. … it’s crazy,” he said. “You are not in your living room. This is a live performance. People worked hard on it, and they can hear you. They are not here for you. Yes, we want your participation, your laughter and your clapping, when it’s appropriate. But be mindful of pulling focus from the performance, because what you’re communicating to performers and everyone around you is that you’re the most important thing there.”
Don’t shout out lines. Don’t heckle. Don’t leave your trash on the floor. Don’t talk so loudly that the actors can hear you. Don’t mouth the words you know by heart—you’re distracting the actor. You want to sing along or shout out the punchline? Stay home and rent Rocky Horror Picture Show.
If your buddy is on stage, don’t shout out his name to let him know you’re there—respect his work and his craft. He probably spent time before the show getting into character. Let him stay there. At outdoor venues, the perception is that it’s OK, or even encouraged, to be more vocal. But take a cue from the actors and any introductory remarks to get a sense of what sort of audience participation is actually encouraged.
Turn off your phone
Again, we can all see you and the glowing blue square in your hands, and so can the actors. Listen when they tell you to turn off your phone because silencing it isn’t enough. We can all hear that too, vibrating down there in the bottom of your purse. At intermission, tag the hell out of the show on Instagram, text your babysitter and take a selfie with your friends to capture all the fun you’re having. Then shut it off again for the second act.
If you absolutely must keep it on, maybe for emergency or medical reasons, turn down the brightness. Even at outdoor venues, where the rules are more relaxed, your phone acts like a little flashlight that every eye in the audience and on stage can see.
Are you really gonna eat that?
“We had people actually bring a full picnic,” recalls Mary Bennett, producing artistic director at Brüka Theatre. “They were back there unwrapping sandwiches during the show.”
It was once standard protocol to forego the food during a show. On Broadway and in many theaters, it’s still common practice to reserve drinks and snacks for intermission only. But for many local theater troupes, bars and snack sales help fund what they do and potentially enhance the viewing experience.
It’s OK to nurse the glass of wine you bought during the show, but open the pack of cookies before the show starts, or wait until there’s applause so we can’t hear it. And, please, consider the venue’s rules and the appropriateness of the food. If they say no outside food, just don’t bring it. Your bucket of chicken may be great at Wingfield Park, but on Brüka’s intimate main stage couches, it definitely isn’t. We can see it and, more importantly, smell it.
And my final rule …
“Theater is one of the last areas where we have public group experiences,” said Spain. “There aren’t a lot of places anymore where groups of people who don’t know each other get together to share something. Theater can’t happen without an audience, and it’s new every time. Respect the nature of the beast and know that it’s a shared experience.”
The performers want to engage you in the show, to take you away to someplace new for a couple hours. Go along with them. Laugh out loud so they know you’re enjoying it. Clap to support their work. Go to the bathroom before the show starts. And don’t let distractions—like your phone or even the raucous folks in the back row—take you away from what’s happening on stage.
“There’s a thing live performances ask for, and that’s kindness,” Bennett said. “The audience has a right to come in and let go and feel something, but we also make assumptions that people will know what the performance is asking for. Theater is changing, and theaters need to get better at asking.”