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Opinion: Theatres need to decide what they want from audiences when it comes to behaviour and enforce it with appropriate rules





Theatre audiences are divided - and it's not over which show they think is best.

Instead it's over what is deemed as 'acceptable' etiquette following a growing list of performances to have been disrupted by aggressive / over enthusiastic / anti-social / audience members, writes columnist Lauren Abbott.

Has the behaviour of audiences got worse since the pandemic? Image: Stock photo.
Has the behaviour of audiences got worse since the pandemic? Image: Stock photo.

The question of whether singing at a musical is acceptable has shone a large spotlight on how audiences are engaging with productions in general.

Alongside tales of rowdy sing-alongs - most recently at last week's halted performance of The Bodyguard - are stories of fights between groups as ticket holders remonstrate with each other, people scrolling their phones and tales of audience members bringing in their takeaway and munching on a burger halfway through act one.

The actor Charles Brunton is among those to have said things have taken a definite turn since the pandemic.

Theatres have had a difficult few years with a pandemic and cost of living crisis. Image: Stock photo.
Theatres have had a difficult few years with a pandemic and cost of living crisis. Image: Stock photo.

Whether we've let unsociable habits we fell into while sprawled on our sofa during lockdown creep into the aisles or we're letting loose after lockdown remains unclear. Others say the rising popularity of jukebox musicals, in which a celebrity lead belts-out songs we all know, is blurring the lines between theatre show and gig.

What is clear however, is that no one can agree. As presenter Alison Hammond discovered when she suggested she rather enjoyed a sing from her seat only to then feel the uproar of Twitter, and then issued an apology.

But as someone who has seen a fair number of shows, it does feel as if messaging has become more mixed as theatres presumably compete for business and people's available cash?

There are the adverts promising the 'best party in town' for a show that'll have you 'dancing in the aisles'. Apps and emails, the second you've booked your ticket, that prompt you to get your drink and snack order in (remotely) from the bar.

Apps and websites encourage you to order drinks before you even arrive. Image: iStock.
Apps and websites encourage you to order drinks before you even arrive. Image: iStock.

Then there are the theatre shows - Disney's Frozen being a prime example - that are based on much-loved children's films where hardcore theatregoers are then surprised to find an audience full of excitable children. Theatre tickets are expensive, but Disney holidays even more so, so it's perhaps no surprise seats are filled with young families in fancy dress desperate to see Elsa in the flesh.

Which brings me onto a growing trend among audiences to fully embrace the costumes - Rocky Horror and Six being two that immediately spring to mind - which surely doesn't help in keeping everyone on the calmer side?

Neither perhaps does actively encouraging audiences to get on their feet at the end and whip out their phones to share pictures and videos of people singing, dancing and having a great time along with a particular hashtag. Because that then gives those seeing it - who may be contemplating buying their own tickets - a somewhat distorted view of the sort of behaviour permitted.

Have the lines become blurred between a concert and theatre? Image: iStock.
Have the lines become blurred between a concert and theatre? Image: iStock.

Theatres have had an extremely tough three years - having been launched from a pandemic that shut the entire industry straight into a cost of living crisis. Getting bums on seats is critical.

But in order to get control of this, venues as a collective need to settle on what they expect from audience members and reflect it in the rules and environment.

Ban the fancy dress, sack-off the selling of noisy snacks, make age limits much clearer and enforce them, stop asking audience members to film and share the noisy dancing at the end and make it very clear that singing, phone scrolling or the like won't be tolerated and will result in your immediate removal.

Unless the performance you're paying for is of the sing-a-long variety, audience participation should be contained to a pantomime. But theatre bosses have a role to play in getting people to tone it down.



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