World-renowned author, playwright and eccentric, Oscar Wilde, once said, “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it means to be a human being.”
[curtain] Quite simply, I concur. I truly believe live stage performances are among the most perfect expressions of art in the world. Historically, the stage has been a forum for a wide range of themes and messages; writers, lyricists, choreographers, musicians and, of course, actors and dancers have done everything from addressing social ills to providing glossy entertainment. Unfortunately, it’s become glaringly clear not everyone holds theater in such high regard.
Some may call me a snob – I prefer “purist” – but I believe, with as many elements as the cast and crew pull together and the number of hours they put into presenting flawless performances, it is the audience’s duty to show the utmost courtesy and respect.
Thus, for your perusal, a brief introductory guide to theater etiquette:
1. Be on time
As you will soon see, the rules of theater etiquette do not exist independently, rather each one leads into another, and together they make for an enjoyable experience. That said, the most important rule for being respectful to the performers and fellow audience members is being on time for the show. Not only is it irritating to have people step on your toes or block your line of sight, it can really throw off the performers.
[watch] “I was doing a show my senior year in high school in a small black-box theater and someone came in late and actually apologized to me,” general management and theatre performance senior John Gilmour said. “I hate people who are late.”
However, as theatre senior Annie Stulberg points out, there are a few remedies to this mortal sin. “When you are late to a performance, it is more polite to enter the theater and find the closest open seat to sit in until there is a break and you can move down to your original seats without disturbing the rest of the audience or the performers,” Stulberg said.
2. Know what you’re seeing
Up to this point it’s doubtful you’ve missed the fact you’re reading an online publication. Thus, you more than likely have some mastery of the computer and the Internet, as well as the skills necessary to Google the show you’re interested in. Yet the nagging question remains: Why don’t you research the show you’re about to spend $50 (or more) on?
Just because the Tony Awards Administration Committee gave the show rave reviews doesn’t mean you’re going to love it too. Jonathon Larson’s Rent won a Pulitzer Prize for drama as well as four Tonys and a slew of other awards. However, that didn’t necessarily mean everyone was ready for his brilliance, incorporating drag queens and drugs into a modern rock opera. After all, there’s nothing more disheartening than reaching an intermission and having to listen to the lady behind you complain that “there’s no talking, all they do is sing” or that she doesn’t like the show because there’s too much dancing.
Additionally, theatrical productions are intricate bodies of artwork with hundreds of facets that include lighting; costuming; staging and, of course, dialogue and music. If you don’t have a decent grasp on the plot and its characters, you’ll likely spend a good deal of time sorting out the story and missing the details of the show. Furthermore, the production that’s happening in front of you is completely unique; there is no rewinding in these shows, and each night the performance is a little different, making it impossible to see the same thing twice. Therein lies the beauty of live theater.
3. Dress appropriately
If you’re going out for a nice evening at the theater, dress like it. For any professional production (think the Wharton Center or shows in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Chicago, etc.) it is rarely suitable to wear anything more casual than dress pants and a nice shirt or sweater for women and men.
At an evening show it’s certainly appropriate to dress nicer and add some glitz. A nice skirt and top for women and a neat shirt and tie for men are great options. Matinees do not require patrons to dress up quite as much, but jeans or sweatpants are never proper attire. College, high school and community theaters naturally are more casual than professional shows but it’s always best to look nice. If you decide to wear jeans make sure they’re nice-looking and paired with an appropriate shirt or blazer.
[no] 4. Refrain from talking, eating or drinking during the show
It’s incredibly rude to hold a conversation with your date, crinkle your candy wrappers or slurp your drinks during a theatrical production. There are intermissions between acts. If you must talk to someone, chances are it can wait until then. And I haven’t even gotten to the extraneous cell phone rings yet. If you are anticipating any necessary calls simply set your phone to vibrate and keep it in your pocket or lap, then quickly and quietly leave between scenes or numbers. Also, as Stulberg points out, it is never acceptable to yell or catcall to performers in any show.
If you really want a cocktail, enjoy it with dinner before or after the show and leave the snacks at home. Moreover, some theaters, like the BoarsHead in Lansing, ask if you feel you’ll need any sort of wrapped candy during the show, unwrap it and keep it readily available so there won’t be a need to disturb anyone else. Do you really have to have that KitKat in the middle of Act II? Unless you’re having a coughing fit and need a throat lozenge, it can wait.
5. Just be courteous (and get plenty of rest before the show)
The rules of theater etiquette, just like any societal guidelines, revolve around just being courteous to fellow patrons. Of course, not everyone knows exactly what respect means, let alone how to exercise it. If they did, people would have already stopped and there would be no books on the subject (which may, in fact, be useless, because if you are really rude enough to violate rules #1-4, chances are you’re not going to seek out a book on remedying it). Nevertheless, think before you act, especially in the theater.
[cain] A real-life model is the perfect highlight for what we’ve just learned. At The Producers last year the man seated behind me came in late (see rule #1) and promptly fell into a deep, snoring sleep (#5), waking up only to ask when intermission was. He returned from intermission (did I mention he was in jeans and a T-shirt? That covers #3!) with a bloody Mary in each hand (too many violations of #4 to count).
Please, don’t be “that guy.” If nothing else, take heed of these general rules, be courteous to fellow audience members and performers and save the “two-fisting” for the frat parties.
After all, as Gilmour says, “You can be naïve once; after that you’re just perpetuating it and being stupid.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *