Good manners when attending performances used to include attitudes relating to formal dress, social mores, and how to be “seen” while “seeing” a performance. Today, live theatre and performance choices are often driven by the anticipated “experience.” The presence of food and beverages (craft beer, anyone?) might be as much a factor as the performance itself.
In this less formal and more “engaged” era when we just gotta check in and hashtag before the lights go down, how do we strike a balance that suits the comfort levels both artistically and intergenerationally?
Before we consider the exceptions, here are the basics of audience etiquette for live theatre, opera, dance, and symphony performances.
1. Dress the part. Sure, events are less formal these days, but don’t you want to be comfortable and look your best? That might be jeans and a polo shirt, or a sundress with a sweater during spring/summer. That might be pants and a sweater during autumn. It’s usually not appropriate to wear shorts to indoor events–and you are likely to be too cold in air conditioning. Hats? No. Remove them indoors, please. People have paid to see the performance, not headgear. A good rule of thumb is the style of the venue itself. Do you really want to wear a 5K t-shirt to Heinz Hall? Would you wear a business suit to a semi-covered amphitheatre?
2. Be aware of your space and the others around you. Remember that you are NOT in your own space. You are sharing public space with others who have also paid to enjoy a live experience. The person closest to you is affected by what you do, so stretch, wiggle, and look around for friends in the audience all before the event begins.
3. Prepare. Get your cough drops, tissues, program and jacket/wrap handy in case you need them to be during the performance. Bags or purses should be under your seat or in your lap. If it’s chilly, have your wrap or jacket on your shoulders should you need to bundle during the the event. Leave big bags, luggage, etc. in the car or home. Most venues can’t stash it and increased security rules are being enforced regarding what you can bring.
4. Turn off your cell phone before the performance begins. Turn it completely off and put it away. There is no reason to have it “on” and it may actually disrupt important electrical systems in the venue. DO check-in on social media, take a snap or selfie in the lobby or house BEFORE the show starts. Repeat, just turn your phone off.
5. Do not talk during performances. Not at all, please. That’s what intermission and arriving early to meet your friends or mingling after the show in the lobby is for. Short of “I think I’m having a heart attack” anything else can wait.
6. Do not take photos or record during performances with a few exceptions. Any union-related actors or musicians’ work may NOT be recorded. When in doubt, ask an usher, but usually you should plan that you may take limited photos in the house before the lights go down or at curtain call only. Do not take any photos during performances. Period. If a performer in a less formal setting allows photos, signage, the program or pre-show announcement will likely indicate what is allowed.
7. Age appropriateness guidelines are offered for good reasons. These include content, length of the performance, and venue. Some children with varied arts experiences might love a long classical music event, especially if they sing or study music. On the other hand, kids need preparation and guidance for their first time at a play, concert or reading. When in doubt, ask the organization and be prepared to leave the auditorium with any child that begins to lose focus to the extent it disrupts others’ experience. For little ones, some color pages or quiet distractions are OK, but consider when to sit with children for the best experience for everyone.
8. Gum. Sure, if being chewed quietly. No, do not stick used gum under your seat. Aren’t you glad we reminded you?
9. Emergency procedures apply to all. Once you are in your seat, check around you for the exit signs. Keep in mind that in an emergency, the nearest exit may be behind you. In the event of a health or other emergency, do what’s appropriate for the safety of all. Exit if there’s a fire alarm and help others as possible. If you are trained in first aid or are a medical professional, you know what to do. If not, get out of the way to safety!
All this might seem very basic but think about it, when was the last time someone near you in a theatre broke some of these guidelines?
Explore the possibilities
Know that every venue and organization is different. Some are very flexible as to audience behavior and expectations. Despite lack of guidance, always consider how the shared experience in a venue is informed by the audience. Your courtesy informs the experience of both yourself and others.
What to wear:
Annabelle Clippinger, director of Pitt Arts at the University of Pittsburgh, suggests common sense guidelines for what to wear.
“If it’s summer or warmer part of the year, no flip-flops or sneakers are suggested. One time a student wore a t-shirt that had a huge symbol on it,” she recalls. “Rather than ever humiliating someone about what they are wearing, students get info ahead of time.”
Pittsburgh Festival Opera suggests what to wear for its air-conditioned summer venues in guidelines appropriate for most theatre and music events. When in doubt, bring a sweater!
Food, drink? We didn’t forget, but venues vary. Adult sippy cups are available at the Benedum, Carnegie Music Hall in Homestead, and other settings. You may have a water bottle in many settings (and always good to have one in your bag). Food or snacks are most often not permitted. Eating is generally not the best thing to do during a performance anywhere. Keeping food out of the auditorium is best, even if it’s allowed. If you need a healthy snack, usually best to bring your own for intermission.
More about technology, how to handle other discourteous patrons, and what experts in our arts organization are saying about old and new manners in varied venues in Part 2 of this series.
Please share your feedback, ideas, and horror stories about etiquette at performances. Tips? Tactics? Tic Tacs? We’d love to hear from you as we follow the changing scene of tech, tricks, and treats in the theatre!
Yvonne Hudson, a Pittsburgh-based writer, publicist, actor, and singer, joined PITR as a writer and adviser in February 2016. She began performing and writing during high school in Indiana, PA. The Point Park journalism grad credits her Globe editor for first assigning her to review a play. Yvonne is grateful to Dr. Attilio Favorini for master’s studies at Pitt Theatre Arts, work at Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival, and believing in her Shakespearean journey. When not working with nonprofits, this lifelong chorister sings with Calvary UM Church’s annual Messiah choir. Having played Juliet’s Nurse for Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks, Yvonne is now seen in her solo shows, Mrs Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson: The Poet Lights the Lamp. Goals: See all of Shakespeare’s plays in production and memorize more Sonnets. Fave quotes: “Good deed in a naughty world,” “Attention must be paid,” and “A handbag?” Twitter @msshakespeare Facebook: PoetsCornerPittsburgh LinkedIn