Saturday, March 20, 2010

Five Basic Rules of Etiquette for Live Theater

Tonight is the closing performance of Gaslight's first show of 2010, Accomplice by Rupert Holmes. It's a fun show and one of the best productions we've done, with a crackerjack cast well-directed by my friend Richard Bostwick. Even I, knowing the script, gasped aloud at some of the surprises and effects.

Community theater is one of the best entertainment values going. Gaslight charges $12 for an adult ticket, or $10 for seniors and students, and you don't waste extra money on junk food. Last night we had close to a full house, which was great, and I hope we don't have to turn people away tonight.

It's especially gratifying to hear people in the audience say they've never been to a play, or at least not since they left school. But coming to the theater is not the same as going to the movies, or going to see a band, and I offer these five etiquette tips for the inexperienced theatergoer. Several regular visitors to this blog are more experienced in the theater than I am, so I invite them to leave additional comments.

1. Remember that the actors on the stage are live human beings. All other rules follow from this first one. If you can see and hear them, they can see and hear you. Actors on the stage are focused on what they're doing, but they can see it when you yawn, fall asleep, send text messages, whisper to your friends, etc. Please show them the courtesy you'd show any other professional at their place of business.

2. Arrive on time. If the curtain time is 8:00, the play will probably have started by 8:10, even with a house-manager's speech. Walking into a performance after it's started is disruptive to the audience and distracting to the actors, which is why the house manager or usher will often ask latecomers to wait until the first scene break before taking a seat, or even until intermission. Some plays are so intense, and some theaters so small, that latecomers won't be seated at all.

3. Turn off everything that makes a noise or emits light. It used to be enough to say "please silence all cell phones and pagers," but now that everyone has an iPhone or Droid or Razor, things light up when calls or text messages come in. In a dark room, people's eyes seek out light; your device is brighter than you think. Unless you're a doctor on call or the parent of a sick child, turn it off.

4. If you think you will need cough drops during the performance, unwrap them before the show begins. I once saw people nearly come to blows at the opera because a man's wife chose to unwrap a cough drop in the middle of a solo.

5. Standing ovations are not routine. It's a funny thing, but I have noticed a sort of grade inflation in the matter of ovations. People seem to think that enthusiastic applause is the minimum required response for even half-hearted performances, and that anything that's actually good demands a standing ovation. Not so. Live theater is interactive, and as an audience member, you're not obligated to be any more enthusiastic than you feel like being. Didn't like the show? A golf clap is fine. Actors know when shows don't go well. Save standing ovations for the truly excellent — unless it's your kid on the stage.


Thomas at My Porch said...

You really hit the nail on the head. These rules also apply to classical music concerts. Although I think you are right on target for all of these, the one that is the least disruptive but DRIVES ME CRAZY is the obligatory standing ovation. Not every performance deserves a standing anything. And they aren't even real ovations, there are a few people who stand up and start looking around for others to stand up and then others sitting down think, "ooh, maybe I should stand up" and so on until anyone who remains seated feels like a communist at a McCarthy hearing. I have been at concerts where the audience, as if it were thinking with one mind, was so enraptured that it appropriately leapt to their feet with a great rush.

I think it started in Hollywood at award shows with a ridiculous assist from partisans at the State of the Union address over the past decade or so. Now that we have a president again who knows something about oratory it is actually quite disruptive to have the speech constantly interrupted.

Cheers Answer Girl.

Zach said...

I have felt very few things I've seen to be "Standing-O" worthy and yet oftentimes I've been forced to stand if I want to see the actors take their bows. It's silly.

Richard said...

maybe I am imagining it, but isn't there a story where a famous actor of yore, after hearing a person coughing during the first act, had a production person at intermission fetch a fish; and that during act 2, said fish was tossed at the offending cougher after calling the cougher a Walrus?

or am I still sleep deprived

AnswerGirl said...

I've never heard that story, but it wouldn't surprise me!

Anonymous said...

Last week we were listening to "Performance Today".It was Barber's Adagio for Strings-I was letting the music take me and telling Meg to listen as I turned it up in the car. then THE COUGHING! Recorded COUGHING!
I told Meg how sad that was and you should try your best not to cough or make noise when you see a show. I'm training mine early! Peggy

Frank said...

According to Bartlett's Book of Anecdotes: "While appearing in the play Redemption, [John] Barrymore was irritated by the audience's constant coughing. In the next act, as soon as the coughing began again, he pulled from his clothes a large fish and flung it into the seats. 'Chew on that, you walruses, while the rest of us get on with the libretto!'"

Frank said...

Although I know it was "tongue in cheek" I would disagree with your "Save standing ovations ... unless it's your kid on the stage." It seems to me that the majority of the unwarranted standing ovations are started by parents, spouses, or relatives. My advice would be if you are related to anyone on stage do NOT stand up unless you are the only person left sitting in the audience.

AnswerGirl said...

Thanks, Frank! I think standing ovations are fine for school productions, but I agree that they set up unrealistic expectations. And you're right; in the "real" theater, people with personal connections to cast members should not lead standing ovations. It's just tacky.

Thomas at My Porch said...

One more comment on standing Os: At Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis many use the standing ovation as an excuse to get out to their cars before everyone else which has led some to rename them Standing Evacuations.

Ingrid said...

I was once at a performance of The Scarlet Pimpernel at the Ahmanson when someone arrived late, to a fourth row Orchestra seat, mid song. The leading man cheerfully incorporated "thank you for gracing us with your presence, would you like a glass of water" into the lyrics before continuing on with the song. Needless to say, the whole theatre was in stitches.