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Minding your manners: A guide to theater etiquette

I have a confession to make: in the summer of 1964, I was shushed for giggling out loud while watching a live stage production of South Pacific at Melody Fair. I couldn’t help it. I was sitting in the front row with my family and a giant horsefly was crawling up Nellie’s leg during a love scene. I was 5 years old, and well, giggles happen. The actors, mercifully, didn’t flinch, and my patient parents turned it into a teachable moment.

Today’s audience distractions extend beyond an errant bug making an unplanned stage appearance. While a stage show should be an escape from the frenetic real world, sometimes an outside influence creeps in to break the rules – and the spell – of live theater.

The most notorious distraction is, of course, the mobile phone. In a storied Broadway moment last year, legendary actor Patti LuPone stepped off the stage and confiscated a cell phone from someone who spent the first act of the show relentlessly texting.

"I don’t know why they buy the ticket or come to the theater if they can’t let go of the phone. It’s controlling them. They can’t turn it off and can’t stop looking at it," said LuPone in a New York Times interview.

Local actors have to face this, too.

"Even though every theater has a preshow recording or a live person reminding everyone to turn off their cell phones, it’s a rare occurrence to sit through an entire play without hearing a ping or a ringtone or even a blast of some video," said Jordana Halpern, managing director of Jewish Repertory Theatre of WNY.

Is this really so awful, or is it merely rude? "Everything you do in the audience can be seen and heard by the actors on stage and the other audience members around you," said local actor Loraine O’Donnell.

Think you’re not center stage because you’re sitting in the dark? Even if your phone is in your lap, you’re not off the hook.

"The blue light illuminates your face, so it’s like you are putting a spotlight on your face," O’Donnell said. "Other audience members also see it and it takes them out of the experience of the show."

Same goes for reading your program: do it before the show, at intermission, or when you get home. Using your phone’s flashlight app to read during the show pulls your attention away from the stage and glaringly signals your boredom to everyone who sees the glow.

Sometimes being too "into" a show is just as annoying as not giving the stage your rapt attention. The audience member who sings along with every song (gulp, guilty again), or chats up the next scene ("Wait ‘til you see this, Mildred…"), or blurts out the punch line wreaks havoc in the audience and sometimes on stage, too. So does out loud opinion-sharing.

"In small houses, you should be careful of critiquing the play during intermission. Often there are microphones on the stage that feed into a speaker in the dressing room, and actors may overhear negative reviews before the play is even over," said Amelia Scinta, an actor and a stage manager for Shakespeare in Delaware Park.

Refrain from capturing the moment with a photo, too.

"Please remember that seeing a flash can be dangerous for the actors," said Scinta.

Does it really matter if a patron paws through her purse for a Werther’s Original during a heartfelt monologue?

"Yes," exclaimed O’Donnell. "And unwrapping a piece of candy slowly does NOT make it more quiet."

Theatergoers who arrive fashionably late are a pet peeve for actor/director Todd Warfield. And believe it or not, Alleyway Theatre’s Joyce Stilson once had to ask a ticket holder to refrain from eating her take-out fish fry (complete with sides) in her seat just minutes before show time.

"Save the dinner for dinner theater," she said.

Over at Theatre of Youth (TOY), next generation theatergoers have a lesson in theater etiquette before the show begins.

"We tell kids that they are here to respect the performer and to give their attention to the stage, and this helps the actors engage with the audience, too," said Meg Quinn, TOY artistic director and founding member. "Children are attentive to the play because we help them understand their role in it. "

The audience-actor connection is vital to the success of any performance. Actors take their roles seriously: after all, it’s their job.

"As actors, what we want is your attention, and we do come with the expectation that we have to earn it. The secret is that the show is better when we feel the audience is with us," said Artie Award winning actor Jenn Stafford.

Part of the magic is lost when patrons are mentally pulled from the stage action, she said.

"But when we have them, when we can hear they are laughing with us, breathing with us, it is easier for us to get lost in the story and bring them along. I think the beauty of live theater is that energy, that real interaction between the audience and the players. It is a real room, with real people in it, some of them are on the stage and more are participating by taking it in. When a good show meets a good audience, that interaction, that palpable magic, is a powerful drug that I, for one, am addicted to."

Good things to do in the theater, says O’Donnell, are to "laugh, cry, listen and enjoy the show." If you’re not completely mesmerized, do as Scinta does when she’s in the audience, and use body language that shows you’re at least engaged with what’s happening on the stage. Above all, simply extend basic courtesies.

"The actors are live and in person, and they deserve respect and consideration," said Halpern.

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