The Eternal, Indisputable, Absolutely Non-Negotiable Rules of Theatre Attendance
It will no doubt come as a surprise to some readers that there are entire collections of behavioral protocols that were once part of what we used to call "common knowledge" but that have now mysteriously dropped out of our shared societal agreement. These were things everyone used to know about the appropriate ways to behave with one another. They never had to be explained; they were as obvious and as inarguable as the understanding that when driving, green meant go and red meant stop. And just like those rules of the road, these codes of conduct helped to facilitate enjoyable mutual participations in shared experiences.
Such is the case with the rules of theatre attendance. Things like not talking during the show and staying through the curtain call were givens. So, when we who still know how to attend theatre like civilized human beings get miffed (or worse) at those who flout these hallowed traditions, it's because we fondly remember a time—not so long ago—when we were able to enjoy a live performance without the unwelcome added task of educating the philistines in our midst just to stop them from ruining the play for us. Back then, there was a tacit group contract to which we all happily adhered, knowing it made for the most fulfilling experience.
Those who believe their theatre tickets come with an entitlement to conduct themselves in whatever way suits them are not only mistaken, they're also selfish, ignorant ruffians who should be forever barred from attending any live event that doesn't feature trucks, glow sticks, or a referee. While I expect I'm preaching to the well-behaved choir, I will nevertheless now lay out not only the eternal, indisputable, absolutely non-negotiable rules of theatre attendance, but also the reasoning behind those rules. I do so as a service; perhaps this primer will find its way to the eyes of those who need to read it most.
And who are these out-of-line ignoramuses in need of such schooling? The very young? The middle or poorer classes? Those who rarely attend theatre? Not by a long shot. Lest anyone think that good audience etiquette is some dusty old set of customs guarded by rich old white people who attended the first play ever, it's worth noting—and this is supported by the Curmudgeon’s own exhaustive, life-long research—that rich old white people are far and away the most consistent and flagrant offenders (as well as the most defensive regarding their uncouth behavior). Regardless, today's diatribe is aimed at anyone (of whatever demographic) whose improper conduct is spoiling things for the rest of us.
There are really only three general rules of theatre attendance, though one of them has many, many, many permutations. Let's dispense with the simpler ones first.
1. No photographs or recordings.
There are several very sensible reasons why it's forbidden to photograph or make any kind of recording of any part of a live theatre piece. First, it is against the law. Yes, really. No, it's not open to interpretation. And no, the fact that there's rarely—if ever—prosecution does not negate this actual, provable fact. All elements of a show are protected by copyright laws. Creating unauthorized images or recordings of the set, costumes, choreography, staging, lighting, or cast is a violation of those laws. In other words, it's a crime. What’s more, it's strictly prohibited by the rules of the theatrical unions as well.
Of course, it's also discourteous. It's distracting to the actors (yes, they can see you) as well as to your fellow audience members. So it is both illegal and inconsiderate—a win-win for those aspiring to a complete lack of class. Perhaps patrons irresistibly inclined to maintain an ongoing record of each activity in their fascinating lives might be more comfortable at events presented by the World Wrestling Federation, where not only are photography and video recording encouraged, but also shouting, fighting, throwing food, and breaking chairs over people’s heads.
2. Don't leave during the curtain call.
The curtain call is part of the show. Here's how you can tell: the seating areas remain dark. That means the presentation is not over yet. It is customary to express appreciation by acknowledging the performance—so customary, in fact, that not doing so is considered unspeakably rude. And once again (this cannot be overemphasized), the actors can see you. Walking out while exhausted performers are bowing for you is like declining to leave a tip at a restaurant. Unless you want to make that type of statement (that the show was so bad as to be unworthy of even polite acknowledgement), it is the height of impropriety to snub the actors and push past your better-mannered neighbors just so you can beat everyone to the exit.
3. Don't cause distraction.
And now we've arrived at the big one. Here's why it matters:
Theatre experiences are crafted with the goal of taking the audience on a mental journey. Ideally, the viewer forgets that he or she is in a theatre and is able to imagine that what's happening on stage is real. This is why the audience is seated, the room is darkened, and the theatre staff tries to prevent behaviors that would ruin the illusion. Distractions during a live theatre piece are as jolting as being shaken awake in the middle of a wonderful dream. Think of that, and it's easy to understand the white-hot rage. Who but the truly villainous would do such a thing? This is why there are the following regulations, which are are, once again, one hundred percent non-optional. You must arrive well before the performance time. If you're catching a train that leaves at 8pm, you don't get to the station at that time. You get there early enough to be fully settled in your seat when the trip begins. The same principle applies at the theatre. Plan ahead. Allow time for a line at the entrance, a trip to the facilities, and the process of finding your seat. Tickets are costly; at those prices, it would seem foolish to rob oneself of the full experience, an experience which can include taking in the special atmosphere of the room, thumbing through the program, people watching, (judging them for their overly casual attire), and being completely ready when the train leaves the station. More to the point, arriving late—or at the last minute—means wreaking havoc as you make your way to your seat in the dark, squeezing past those who are already engaged in the presentation, blocking their view, stepping on toes, whispering "excuse me"s, and working your way into your seat. You've ruined the show for your fellow theatergoers—people who, like you, spent money on tickets—a surefire way to make enemies.
You must turn off anything that makes noise or emits light. You are absolutely not allowed under any circumstances to have your cell phone on, nor anything else that might beep, buzz, light up, or emit a happy little ringtone. Placing devices on "vibrate" will not suffice since, in quieter moments, those vibrations are as loud as garbage trucks backing up. You may not text, check the time, view messages, or look up the weather in Guam, and you certainly cannot make or accept calls. These are the rules. They're neither new nor negotiable. Try watching the show. Incidentally, the time to turn things off is not as the houselights are dimming. That's far too late. The presentation has already begun. Often, the first few seconds of a play are crucial in setting the tone. Waiting for a room full of illuminated phone screens to power down is not part of that design. Here's a little-known scientific fact: whatever is on your phone will still be there after the show.
There is no talking, whispering (or—God forbid—singing along) at any time. At no time while the houselights are out are you permitted to use your voice (with the exception of reactions that are elicited by the play, such as laughs, gasps, weeping, or the occasional "bravo!"). Note again that the darkened houselights are your helpful cue to be quiet, and that only the raising of those houselights is an indication that talking is once again permitted. That means that blackouts between scenes are not your opportunities to catch up with your neighbor. These are part of the show as well. Every time you make noise, you remind your neighbors that they're in a theatre, rather than in the world of the play. It bursts the bubble, shatters the illusion, and instantly identifies you as a member of the uncivilized riffraff. In short, shut up. Also forbidden: crinkling cellophane candy wrappers, plastic water bottles, noisy jewelry, gum smacking, eating, drinking, and the horrific sound created by searching around for something in a purse or bag. These are the banes of the theatre lover's existence.
If you perpetrate any of these crimes, prepare to be scolded for your boorish behavior. No one likes having to confront the self-entitled, but at these prices, we will. So for all our sakes, please just watch the show. It's better that way.
However, if you find these time-honored traditions snooty, unreasonable, old-fashioned, overly strict, or if you feel they violate your perceived rights, there is another alternative. Don't go to the theatre. It's not for you. If you hurry, I expect you can still get a good seat for the roller derby.