Don't Upstage: Theater Etiquette for Beginners

Since theater season is well upon us, I thought I'd take a page from my Museum Etiquette for Beginners post, and ask some friends for tips for those new to the theater scene as audience members. This time of year is an especially good time in Houston for people new to staged performances to dip a toe in, with works like The Nutcracker at Houston Ballet and A Christmas Carol at Alley Theatre providing easy entry. There's even The Alley's The Santaland Diaries for those looking to branch out from "traditional" theater without getting all Godot all over everyone.

I talked to actors, theater employees, volunteers and long-time lovers of the stage to find out the Dos and Don'ts of being a member of the audience. Here are their answers:

Respect the Timeline

Arrive early enough to park and find your seats, especially if your tickets are waiting at will call. This is especially important if you're having dinner before the show. I am not a wine drinker, but one of the things that makes theater-going feel so fancy to me is getting to indulge in a glass of wine, so you'll want to make time for that too. Bathroom if you need to (and there may be a line). Most theaters either flicker the lights or play chimes to indicate your time to linger is almost up. This is your cue to head to your seat, not a warning that you have five more minutes to spare. If you arrive late, most theaters won't seat you until a scene change or break in the performance. This same all applies to intermission, according to a friend who works as a stage manager.

Don't leave early to beat traffic, either. At this point, most people in the audience are fully involved in the story, and leaving early could be even more distracting than arriving late. The appropriate time to leave is after the house lights come on.

Respect the Audience

Some noise is inevitable -- I have bad allergies and am sometimes one of those people guilty of coughing or sniffling a lot. But other noises can be avoided. One female theater-goer warned against wearing a lot of jangly jewelry or purses with chain-link straps. Don't dig around in your purse either. Remember, most theaters are designed so that noise travels -- that includes the zipping of your purse and even the vibrating of your phone.

If you MUST cough or sneeze or unwrap a throat drop, try to save it for a louder moment of the play. (This is why musicals are great.)

Respect the Dialogue

React to what's happening on stage, not what's going on with your seatmates. Don't whisper to your companions, but feel free to laugh at or applaud for the characters. Honest reactions are greatly appreciated by actors, and after performing a play several times they'll come to anticipate those reactions at certain points in the story. Match the tenor of the crowd -- if heckling is encouraged, heckle if you feel like it. But don't laugh at every little thing, especially not if you're the only one in the theater laughing.

This includes avoiding drawing attention to yourself. From a friend in Washington DC who is a major theater-junkie:

If you're attending theatre in-the-round, or a smaller stage where the audience wraps around the stage in a U-shaped pattern, and your seats are in the front row - try NOT to wear super bright colors, or really short dresses (it really pains me to say that). Chances are you're in the line-of-sight of people seated on the other side of the stage, and their eyes will be drawn to you and not the actors on stage.

And keep the cell phone IN THE PURSE/POCKET. Better yet, just turn it off. Even just checking the time or a text on your phone casts a glow that draws attention to you.

"I think most people are surprised to learn that we actually can see beyond the footlights and can hear (even in big musicals) what's going on in the theater," an actor friend in New York City said. "It is our job to connect with the audience and tell stories, which is really difficult to do when a few people are behaving poorly."

Respect the Space

One friend who used to attend a lot of theater in New York City said people should be respectful of fellow audience members in less-expensive seats.

"Quit bragging about how much you spent on the seats," she said. "Jerks like to brag in NYC for sure."

Seriously? Who DOES that?

Another friend felt compelled to add that people should not prop their bare feet up on the stage or chairs. That seems obvious, right? But not this next bit of advice:

"Do NOT switch seats at intermission, causing several groups of people to rearrange."

Even if you don't switch seats, a lot of movement can be distracting to the person behind you. And that movement can create a chain-reaction of people shuffling in their seats:

"Don't place your head on the shoulder of the person next to you, or constantly be leaning forward / shifting your body/head. Chances are you're forcing the people in the rows behind you to move since you're now blocking their view."

Also, from my stage manager friend:

"Don't try to wander into restricted areas 'just to see them.'"

I can't believe the balls of some people.

Respect the Actors

Again with the cell phones, from the actor in New York.

It's illegal to photograph or record a union actor's performance for any reason, but that stuff wouldn't bother me if I couldn't also see someone's video camera and its little blinding red light in the back of the house. When we see those little lights in the darkness, it's incredibly distracting. Often, when an usher comes and asks you to stop, it's because an actor has noticed you and notified the stage manager (who, in turn, calls the house manager).

And in case I haven't rammed the point home yet about leaving before the house lights go up, here's one more bit of advice from an actor that I think especially applies to Houston:

One thing that I think is really unique to the actor's experience may sound so silly -- and it happens a lot on the road (in cities where people drive): when people run out during the curtain call at the end of the show. I'm sure it's for "good" reason: so they can get to their car or "beat the rush" or get home for a football game or something. I can't tell you how offensive that is. Besides the two hours we have just spent working to entertain you, we have uprooted our lives, sacrificed some relationships, and spent a lifetime training all so that we can entertain you. It's not that I care so much about taking a bow or getting your applause, but to see you RUNNING out of the theater as quickly as possible is hurtful. It feels like you've been held against your will (in the case of the folks running for a football game, maybe you have been), and you can't wait to escape. It's hard not to take that personally.

Ouch. Don't be that person.

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