Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Down in front!

The top five theatre-audience faux pas

Credit: Paul Dotey

It’s happened to all of us: you’re tearing up watching an actor in a play deliver a heartbreaking monologue when all of a sudden a nearby ringtone (set to an LMFAO single, naturally) obnoxiously breaks the spell. Usually, the owner of the cellphone in question is mortified and quickly turns it off. But sometimes, he or she might actually answer it. “I was at a workshop where this dude was on the phone for the entire show whispering a running narrative of the action to whoever was on the other end,” says Mark Aikman, manager of marketing and communications at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. “Weirdest thing, though, was that I was near him outside after the show, and he and his friends were raving about how much they loved it.”

While some long for the days when there was no possibility of accidentally taking your rotary telephone into the auditorium, others are delighted to tweet their opinion of Act 1 during intermission. But have we forgotten how to behave at the theatre? “People increasingly feel they can talk during plays and movies,” says Now magazine’s stage and film editor, Glenn Sumi. “Maybe they’re used to doing that at home with their big-ass home entertainment systems, but it’s rude and selfish.”
Xtra spoke with some of the city’s most respected audience members, and we’ve broken down their pet peeves, no-nos and egregious errors into five key audience faux pas.
1. Cellphones
Feel like pulling focus during a play? There’s an app for that. Smartphones mean audience members are now able to live-tweet a performance, Shazam a song played during the show, browse Grindr for the cute guy two rows back, and maybe even Instagram the actors. “I was watching a play in Montreal,” says Buddies’ artistic director, Brendan Healy, “and there was a character delivering a monologue about this horrific war scene — and this guy was right in front of me taking photos of her as she was doing it. I thought that was pretty gross.” Some think that if their phones aren’t ringing it isn’t a distraction, but the screen that lights up when you check the time, texts or emails might not be appreciated by those sitting near you. “The light is distracting to both the audience members and the performers,” Sumi says. And if you simply must text during a show, Aikman has some practical advice: “Sit in the back row.”
2. Talking
Some audience members scrupulously set their phones to “airplane mode” during performances yet think nothing of gabbing with their seatmates during the show. Jon Kaplan, a senior theatre writer with Now, finds Mirvish and larger, commercial theatre audiences especially chatty. “Their audiences are similar to movie audiences: ‘I paid my money; I can do what I like — repeat that good line to my friend or text someone,’” he says. “But no, it’s not your living room; you’re sharing a communal space. Respect it. We’re all there to watch and listen to the people onstage, not you.”
3. Candy wrappers
The crinkle of a peppermint’s plastic wrapper is something you’d usually never notice, but during an intimate moment of Orpheus Descending, it becomes the equivalent of nails on a blackboard. 
“Do you know how loud a cellophane bag of candies sounds when a hand keeps rummaging in it for yummies?” asks Lynn Slotkin, former theatre correspondent for CBC’s Here and Now and current editor of The Slotkin Letter
Kaplan agrees, claiming his number one theatre-etiquette pet peeve is “people undoing crinkly wrapped candy during a show slowly, as if it’s less annoying if it goes on for a longer period of time. ‘Just open the fucking thing!’ I want to shout.”
4. General slobbishness
Some people don’t need to open a candy wrapper, a cellphone or even their mouths to ruin your evening. Thoughtless physical comportment and, well, general slobbishness can be equally disruptive. Slotkin’s number-one pet peeve is noise from the audience, which, she is quick to remind us, comes not only from talking, but from “the fidgeters who inadvertently make noise by strangling their programs incessantly.” 
Healy says he’s noticed another new trend: “I’ve seen people propping up their feet on the stage when they’re sitting in the front row.” Could this too-casual attitude stem from our increasing consumption of entertainment at home, where no one sees what you get up to during an episode of Homeland? “With theatre, we can forget that, hey, wait a minute, there are real people looking at your feet on their stage right now and they’re trying to pretend they don’t see your shoes in their living room, and that’s a problem for them.”
5. Chicken dinners
We’re not making this up! Kaplan says the worst example of poor audience etiquette he’s ever seen was courtesy of “the woman immediately behind me noisily eating an aromatic takeout chicken dinner at a performance of Billy Elliot.” 
Slotkin had a similarly memorable experience at a SummerWorks show, when “a father and daughter brought in a full three-piece KFC dinner, which they proceeded to eat during the show. They chomped, munched and sucked at those morsels, loudly enjoying those 11 secret ingredients and smelling up the whole theatre.”
The rituals associated with attending the theatre change with the times. A bucket of fried chicken is a bit extreme, but many theatres have relaxed or obliterated no-food policies in recent years. And there have been a few high-profile cases of plays that have held special performances in which audience members were encouraged to live-tweet their thoughts. Are we on a downward spiral of theatre etiquette? Well, maybe not. “We live in a time when audiences behave the best in the history of mankind,” Healy claims. “In the olden days of Shakespeare, the lights didn’t go off.It would be mid-day; people would be selling things during the whole performance, fucking. Whatever the hell could be going on, they’d be doing it. It’s only in the past 100 years that we’ve expected the quality of attention from audiences that we’ve been seeing.”