talk about your reaction to the THEATRE ETIQUETTE readings and videos, and then share a distracting experience that you may have had when you attended a play. If you have never been to a play, you may


This season, Keira Knightley got a marriage proposal from a devout stalker, Mark Strong paused A View From the Bridge when someone fainted at the sight of a shirtless actor, Hand to God was interrupted when a drunk theatergoer tried to use an onstage outlet, and Patti LuPone snatched a person’s phone from their hands after watching the ticketholder text through Shows for Days.

Who’s to blame?

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“The theater is a mutual experience in which everybody is there in one place and at one time, and it will never happen again — it’s about being respectful of all the work that has gone into something,” Judith Light tells THR. “I think the real truth of it is, a lot of people don’t know what theater etiquette actually is. Maybe that’s our responsibility, to put something together. I find that when you give people the information, they will abide by it.” Source:


These days, when we seem to be electronically connected 24/7, knowing how to behave at a live theatrical performance is of paramount importance. There are certain “rules and regulations” that govern acceptable behavior in the theatre. Some of these rules and regulations stem from union stipulations protecting actors, and some stem from the basics of polite human interaction and good manners.

It is extremely important to remember that there are many human beings in a theatre at the same time – actors, audience, theatre personnel such as front-of-house employees, and backstage crew. Actors, theatre personnel and crew members are educated in how to behave while they are in the theatre working, but oftentimes audience members have never been exposed to theatre etiquette.

The actors can see and hear audience members, just as audience members are listening to and observing the actors performing onstage. It stands to reason, then, that each audience member must remain aware that the performance they are attending is not only a shared experience for the entire audience, but also that the actor is having a shared experience with the audience as well, and that whatever happens in the audience can and does affect the actors onstage. Everyone in the theatre space is “in it together”.

Professional actors are protected by a union, the Actors Equity Association, commonly referred to as AEA or Equity. Equity protects the livelihoods of its members by prohibiting the audio and visual recording of any performance without express permission from Equity and compensation for the performers. The reasoning behind this is that unauthorized recording and distribution of performances, or “bootlegs” as they are called, directly affect actor compensation.

What this means is – no cameras of any kind, cell phone or otherwise, and no audio recorders of any kind, either. An announcement about this prohibition is usually made before a performance begins, either pre-recorded and played over the theatre’s sound system, or by an employee of the theatre who comes onstage and gives what is called a “curtain speech”. This speech may include information about ways to exit the theatre in an emergency situation, and it always includes the admonition about recordings of any kind. If an audience member chooses to ignore this admonition, the theatre is perfectly within its rights to either confiscate the equipment being used to record (this is returned to the patron at the end of the performance), or to ask the patron to leave.

In our digital age, constant communication seems to be the accepted norm. In the theatre, however, allowing a cell phone to ring, talking on a cell phone and/or texting during performances, while not necessarily prohibited, is extremely rude and incredibly distracting. When one enters the theatre, one should turn off one’s cell phone, and if it is turned on at intermission, it should be turned off again when the patron goes back into the theatre. Even on vibrate mode, a cell phone can be distracting to other audience members, so turn off the cell phone. As has been said, the performance is a shared experience, and a distraction such as cell phone use is simply bad manners. The other audience members can hear the offender, and so can the actors onstage.

In addition, flash photography can be very dangerous to performers who are dancing, executing fight choreography or doing stunts. Any distraction can result in injury, so for their safety, they must have total focus.

The audience member is not in his or her living room, or at the movies. Although many theatres do allow snacks and beverages into the performance space, these activities can be very distracting to audience members and performers alike, so it is important to choose items that are quiet, if one chooses to eat or drink during a performance. A crinkly potato chip bag, slurping through a straw, or unwrapping cellophane-wrapped candy is, once again, bad manners. In a large theatre, this may not be quite as much of an issue as it is in a smaller theatre. Use your judgment, but a rule of thumb is to save the eating and drinking for before or after the performance, or at intermission.

Refraining from talking is essential in the theatre. An occasional brief comment to a companion is acceptable, but having a conversation is not. It bears repeating: everyone can hear you.

This brings us to guidelines about how to respond to performers. Obviously, the theatre exists to engage and affect audience members. Therefore laughing and/or crying at something that is emotionally moving is perfectly acceptable, and indeed, encouraged. But excessive reactions such as screaming, whooping, making comments out loud, etc. is not. The theatre is not a movie or a rock concert. Enthusiastic applause is always welcome, of course, as is a standing ovation at the end of the performance, if one thinks the performance warrants it.

It is also prudent to attempt to confine yourself to the limits of your individual seat. Be polite about the shared armrest, and, if there is no coatroom at the theatre, fold your coat and keep it on your lap, unless there is an empty seat beside you.

As far as a dress code is concerned, even though there is no longer a formal dress code for the theatre as there was in the past, in our society, where individual expression is prized, consider coming to the theatre in attire that respects the activity one is about to engage in.

In summary: Play by the rules, be aware of your surroundings, and employ good manners so that everyone in the theatre can have an enjoyable experience.

Copyright by Professor Marilyn Salvatore (2018)

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