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Forty International Students and a Grumpy Gay Critic: How I Learned to be Less Pious About Theatre Etiquette

theatre etiquette Who's afraid of liquorice allsorts? Imedla Staunton in a promotional shot for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?". Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

When I took forty international students to see a West End show I feared for my sanity. But learned that slack on theatre etiquette is healthier for us all.

I have been a complete bastard to some audience members regarding theatre etiquette. I think my lowest point was during Romeo & Juliet where, after the audience member behind me had spent an excruciatingly long time unwrapping what sounded like a baby elephant clad in cellophane, I turned around, grabbed the bag, and said, in hushed but stern tone “NO! N.O!” To the audience member’s credit, they did cease. But did I just completely ruin their night at what was an amazing show? Quite probably.

The debate about theatre etiquette, particular surrounding food, has come around again, with ATG announcing an all out ban on food in the auditorium for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? This has been greeted with a round of applause from many critics, but other have raised a big concern that this attitude is being seen as elitist and is driving audience members away from theatre. So what can be done, and can there ever be a consensus or compromise on modern theatre etiqutte?

Don’t Quit The Day Job, James

This was the acid test for me, not for them.

theatre etiquetteMany of you will know that I hold down a full-time job alongside my jaunts to the theatre. I work with international students studying a foundation degree in medicine, and also help run a summer school in July for international students looking to apply directly to study medicine in the UK. Of course, alongside the academics, there is a social programme which I’m involved in creating and delivering. Being in London, you can’t NOT go to the West End to see a show, so it’s an unavoidable thing that I have to go through with the students.

In July 2016, I was tasked with taking 40 international students, all of whom were under 18, to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I was genuinely filled with dread. My role in my job is to be happy and nice, therefore I absolutely can’t start shouting at students for nibbling popcorn at a level above 1 decibel: I would get fired. So, how the hell was I going to balance my strict upbringing on “proper” theatre etiquette and standing as a theatre critic, against being a pastoral and friendly camp counselor (pun intended)? The majority of them haven’t seen much theatre, let alone British thetare, so I couldn’t just expect them to adhere to every nuance of British theatre etiquette straight off the bat. I HAD to promise myself that I would not get upset if the students behaved “badly”, as essentially I had no choice.

I was stressed by the time I had arrived at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, but that’s down to trying to get 40 minors across London on public transport and through Covent Garden without losing any. Once inside the foyer, I almost keeled over as I saw them buying sweets and drinks in their droves, which the theatre was shamelessly (and extortionately) selling. But I was in for the long haul, now, and there was nothing I could do.

Before the show, I had to dig my heel in just a little regarding theatre etiquette: mobile phones. As we took our seats, nearly all of them had their’s out and playing Pokemon Go: there were a couple of Pidgey’s that could be caught on stage, apparently. “Guys, I’m a part-time theatre critic,” I announced. “If I see any of you on your phone during the show, I will take them off you. Not because you’re bored, but because the light from the screens distract other paying audience members behind you.” But that’s as much of a dickhead I was going to let myself be on this. It was a modicum of control that made me feel a little less anxious about the next two and a half hours. Curtain went up, and phones went away: this was the acid test for me, not for them.

I Saw the Limelight

They weren’t being rude or disrespectful: they were having fun and loving every moment of the musical, sharing that experience between them.

Theatre etiquette

Gloopy goodness. Scene from ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Not one phone came out of a pocket during the show. Had my stern, snooty warning worked? Glancing around from time to time, each and every one of the students look engaged and enjoying the show; there was no reason for them to try and catch a couple more Pokemon or WhatsApp friends. They were genuinely distracted from all that by what, by all accounts, is a great West End show. It wasn’t me that had stopped them using their phones, it was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s brilliance. As for their snacks, they were happily munching away on them. But the noise they made were barely audible above the show’s amplification. If I wanted to hear the noise and make a big deal out of it, I could, but I would have to strain.

The only thing I picked up on was some of the students behind me making little conversations throughout. Normally, I would turn around and ask demand they be quiet. But this time, I just listened to what they were saying. What they were doing was not nattering away, but actually responding directly to the show among themselves. They weren’t being rude or disrespectful: they were having fun and loving every moment of the musical, sharing that experience between them.

Suddenly, after that evening, I had suddenly gained much more of an understanding of what vocal upstarts for the abolition of theatre etiquette, like the ever articulate Laura Kressly, the blogger behind The Play’s the Thing, are on about. If we stop people enjoying a show in their own way, we stop people enjoying theatre. People are going to bring snacks, and they’re going to have a bit of a chat from time to time. Being grumpy, telling them off, and sneering at people for something so slight as being peckish is just going to put people off coming the theatre. Who are we to put limits on their enjoyment?

Balancing Act

…there’s a real worry about trying to keep audience numbers up with further cuts to arts funding, it’s becoming a madness that we need larger audiences but insist on being selective about who they are and how they behave.

theatre etiquette

Food, inglorious food. Scene from “Oliver!”. Photograph: Courtesy of Claudia Rubio.

My whole approach for the majority of my theatre going life (which is, essentially, all of it) towards theatre etiquette is that you shouldn’t do anything to infringe on someone else’s enjoyment of the show. But herein lies the irony: if you’re going to stop people bringing in snacks, or enforcing a strict “STFU” rule, you’re actually infringing on their enjoyment of the show. This is essentially why we’re in the pickle we’re in. Add to this that theatre is seen as an elitist medium and that there’s a real worry about trying to keep audience numbers up with further cuts to arts funding, it’s becoming a madness that we need larger audiences but insist on being selective about who they are and how they behave.

Try and look at the image we’re looking at from an outsider’s perspective when you take ATG’s approach to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf:

ATG: “Hey! We’ve got this great show with some pretty stellar casting that we’ve like you to pay a lot of money to come and see!”
Audience: “Oh, wow! that looks like a treat. I’m definitely coming. I shall also be bringing a bag of Minstrels into the auditorium with me.”
ATG: “OMFG! What are you doing, you evil, evil person. That’s tantamount to sacrificing kittens to the ghost of Harold Shipman. GTFO, you scum!”

Ok, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But given how aggressively some critics and commentators are praising the ban and the vitriol that they’re engaging with people who have raised concerns about how elitist it can seem, this perhaps isn’t too far from the impression we’re giving regular theatre-goers. The people who are for banning snacks into theatres can seem are angry, unreasonable, and snobby, and not someone you’d want to be sitting on a bus with, let alone next to in an auditorium.

But at the same time, I don’t think we can really justify saying that everyone should be completely fine with people enjoying the equivalent of a three course meal in the seat next to them. I’ve heard one horror story from a prominent and well respected PR about a member of the audience who brought a full McDonald’s Big Mac Meal (other brands are available) into a show into the front row of a West End show. As much as I’m all for a more relaxed approach to theatre etiquette, I think that this is far too disruptive and more than a bit much on the pungent smell of grease alone. Also, I remember the time I was working at New York University’s London campus and witnessed one of the students trying to take two full 14″ pizzas into the Royal Court. The look on the front of house staff’s face was classic, as was the cloakroom assistant with whom the student had to check their pizzas in with. But, both those examples are extremes. A bag of Doritos is hardly going to cause the collapse of theatre etiquette and doom a show, or ruin an actor’s career.

It’s tricky. As a theatre lover myself, I don’t want to have my enjoyment of a performance infringed upon by patrons bringing in burgers. But then, I don’t think audience members really appreciate me infringing on their enjoyment of a show by having a go at them because I think sucking on a Polo is suddenly ASBO-worthy, especially if it is the first time they’ve ever been to the theatre. So what can we do?

Audiences, They Are A Changin’

Cinema is far more accessible to people, and what is acceptable in those spaces is what people have become used to. We have to deal with it.

theatre etiquette

Have your cake and eat it in the front row? Scene from “Matilda: The Musical”. Photograph: Courtesy of Joan Marcus.

If we’re going to get to a common and reasonable ground on all of this, we’ve got to accept that audience attitudes have changed. Cinema is far more accessible to people, and what is acceptable in those spaces is what people have become used to. We have to deal with it. Audience members, especially theatre first-timers, are going to treat a trip to the theatre like an outing to the cinema. That’s something we have to recognise and respect. Ironically, theatre etiquette is already drastically different from Elizabethan attitudes, where public urination, getting openly drunk, and indiscreetly soliciting prostitutes was completely acceptable to do during a performance of Hamlet. 

Theatres, especially for plays, should look into good sound design. Yes, I know some spaces have great acoustics where all an actor has to do is project and they can be heard in the gods. But if they’re also going to have to overcome the rustle of sweet wrappers, then I can’t see why a bit of amplification isn’t something that can be done to ensure everyone can hear the performance whether they have something in their gob or not. I think there should be some discretion and control over what kinds of snacks can be taken in. Really, this is stopping the Big Macs and the 14″ pizzas from making cameos, not the Fruit Pastels and the Wotsits. It’s all about trying to ensure people are mindful about those around them. If you’re going to eat something, by all means, but maybe bring something that isn’t going to cause too much noise or smell. I think even Kressly might have some issue if I started tucking into a tuna and Gorgonzola open sandwich, with extra garlic mayo, next to her.

But ultimately, I think those who are more au fait with traditional Victorian theatre-going etiquette, like I was, need to relax (#chillax?). We might feel their “misbehaving” but are they really doing this out of being uncouth, spiteful, or are just hell bent on ruining everyone else’s time at the theatre? Or are they just unaware and unfamiliar about theatre etiquette? As Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” If we want theatre to thrive, we have to adapt its craft and our attitudes toward modern audience members. Otherwise, it’s just going to die.

As for me, I actually have to live with the fact that my previous attitude has probably put at least one audience member, and their companions, off going to theatre for life. As someone who supposedly champions theatre, that’s a hypocrisy for which I should rightly be raked across the coals for. In saying that, I can imagine that critics like Kressly might still think that the above middle ground is still too stuck-up and narrow, even though I’m certainly not as vicious about hungry hungry audiences as others have been on the subject. But I welcome the opportunity to be further challenged on this hot sweet chilli sauce topic.

I’ll admit that I’m far from the most perfect patron here, and certainly still have a lot more to learn and reflect upon with not just how I react towards others, but how I conduct myself in the theatre. I still think people singing along to musicals in the seat next of me should have a sentence of being hung, drawn, and quartered (and that includes my mother: a frequent felon of this heinous crime). But, maybe with time, and a few more work outings with students, I might not think that way any more.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, SW1Y 4DN, until 27 May 2017. Tickets are £10 – £80. To book, visit whosafraidofvirginiawoolf.co.uk.