Picture this: you’ve paid good money for a ticket to see the latest West End production, and you can feel the cast, audience and production team’s excitement rising as you take your seats. Suddenly, disaster strikes halfway through the first act, as a loud ringtone goes off in the row in front of you.
The rules of ‘theatre etiquette’ are supposed to prevent these kinds of disturbances for audience members. Of course, with a live audience, one cannot expect (nor want) silence throughout a performance, but there is supposed to be an understanding of what you should, and should not, do whilst at the theatre. This includes understanding that you should not arrive late, not bringing in any food or drink that is noisy to open or consume, not talking during the performance (and just generally not disturbing fellow audience members with your behaviour), and, finally, not using your mobile phone during the performance and aiding this by keeping it on silent throughout the show. At least, this was the norm for many years, until the last decade or so; levels of etiquette have been so low that esteemed actors (such as Sir Patrick Stewart and Rosamund Pike) have made direct complaints to theatre groups about the need to “step things up”. Indeed, some theatre companies have made valiant efforts to do so, namely Nimax theatres in the UK, who have brought in a ‘scrunch test’ to determine which confectionary wrappers are too loud to open, and therefore should not be allowed in their venues as they would disrupt the atmosphere. Others, however, are more lax about such standards, such as Ambassador Theatre Group. They offer in-seat food and drink ordering at their theatres. Aside from this, there is also a difference between our West End and our friends across the Atlantic. Over the last decade, some American theatres have introduced ‘tweet seats’ where people are actively encouraged to use their social media. Presumably, this is because theatre companies are hoping for audience members to use their social media to talk about the performance, as opposed to scrolling mindlessly through your feed. Thankfully, this trend has not caught on in the UK.
Most recently, the debate surrounding theatre etiquette has been rekindled after Rihanna was seen not only turning up late to a performance of Slave Play, a bold Broadway production fresh from its off-Broadway sell out run, but was also seen texting its playwright during the performance. In response to this, Jeremy O’Harris tweeted: “Two things I learned today about the type of theatre maker I am: When my idol texts that she’s running late, I hold the curtain for her. When my idol texts me during a play I’ve written, I respond.” This sparked heavy criticism, largely aimed towards Rihanna for violating theatre etiquette, but interestingly O’Harris defended the star, and said in a later tweet that he is “not interested in policing anyone’s relationship to watching a play ESPECIALLY someone who isn’t a part of the regular theatregoing crowd. Moreover, as ppl [sic] on this site know I’m famously ambivalent abt [sic] phone use in theatre”. Interestingly, O’Harris’ views are the complete opposite of another famous playwright and director, Lin Manuel-Miranda, who famously berated Madonna in 2015 for being on her phone during a performance of Hamilton.
Although O’Harris is a defender of Rihanna’s actions, overall, one’s behaviour in the theatre should be respectful towards other audience goers. If celebrities are seen to be getting away with bad behaviour, this only enourages other people to follow suit. Ultimately, everyone should be able to enjoy theatre in their own way, as long as that doesn’t involve ruining it for anyone else.
Words by Yasmin Bye.