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Live Theater Etiquette for Dummies – Yes, You

Live Theater EtiquetteRant on rude.

Monica was performing in a 200-seat arena theater a couple of years ago. During the middle of a scene, a man sitting on the second row took his cell phone out of his pocket. He proceeded to dial a number and have a conversation without a thought.

People kept giving him the stink eye, to no avail. His wife tapped his knee a couple of times, but he gave no response. And no one told him to shut the heck up.

I would not have been so kind. I’d rather be “rude” to a rude patron than allow him to ruin a performance for an entire audience and the actors who had worked so hard. My problem: I was on the opposite side of the theater and pole vaulting across the stage would likely have been more disruptive than the call itself. Maybe.

Finally, I slipped out the exit right next to my seat, went backstage, and found the owner. She was furious, marched down the hall to the entrance, and threw open the curtains. Just as she was about to stop the whole production and boot him out the door — as only an elderly theater matron can — he looked up and slipped the phone back in his pocket. She glared for a few long seconds before disappearing again backstage.

I cannot count the number of times a musical, play, concert, or even movie I’ve attended has been disrupted by people who seem to think they live in a vacuum. Either that, or they believe their personal conversations trump everything else going on in the world.

Last week, after yet another one of my kids’ performances was interrupted by rude, disruptive adults (and I put parents who don’t teach/monitor their attending children in the same category), I’d like to take this opportunity to vent about what appears to be a bygone sense of decorum. I hereby propose some universal theater etiquette for live performances and will ask you, in the most congenially manner possible, to just stay home if you can’t handle them.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Live theater etiquette rules you want to follow starting now.

Find out what is appropriate at a given venue.

You have internet access, right? You can look this up, right? Before you go, take 20 seconds to find out what will be expected. For example, you wouldn’t whistle the tune at a classical concert, but it’s perfectly acceptable at an outdoor blues concert. You don’t clap between symphony movements, but you can (and  should) clap any and every time a ballroom dancer does anything remotely cool. The overture is part of the performance. When it begins, zip it.

Get in your seat.

Give yourself time to be seated before the performance starts. If you can’t, stay in the hall until the appropriate time (see below).

Stay in your seat.

Unless your child is disrupting or you have bodily fluid gushing from part of your person — in which case those seated near you will be glad to have you make a hasty exit — keep your backside in your chair until the scene or piece is over. Then, during the blackout or applause, get up as unobtrusively as you can and exit quickly.

Stay in the hall.

If you are not in your seat during a scene or piece, wait until the current scene or piece is over before you start climbing over all the other seated patrons. Again, use the blackout or applause to be seated to cause as little disruption as possible.

Other people are there.

You are not in a force field. You are not observing a YouTube video on your smart phone in the bathroom. You are not watching TV in your rec room. If you make noise or flail about, the performers and the other audience members will hear and see you. For the love of pete, stop talking, whispering incessantly, flashing your cell phone light in my face, bouncing around in your seat, rustling your licorice wrappers, or ignoring your kids while they dance, talk, cry, or throw M&Ms. (We don’t think they are as adorable as you do. Honest.)

Your head is in front of other people.

You may be fascinated by fascinators, but trying to peer through feathers, around a baseball cap, or over an enormous bun (see above) isn’t so fascinating to the people behind you. Leave it home or take it off when the show starts. Same goes for letting your toddler stand on you lap. If his/her head is above yours, it’s like sitting behind a super wiggly NBA player. (Believe it or not, we’d rather watch the production we paid for than your (super adorable) kid.) Same for making out with your one true love. We can see it and it blocks our view.

Turn off your phone.

Off. No calls. No texts. No Facebook. If your personal messages are so critical to the survival of the human race that you can’t afford to shut it off for an hour, you can’t afford to be at the theater. Do us all a favor and stay home to save the world. We are counting on you.

Silence your children.

This week I attended a dance recital for my two boys. The auditorium was full of gleaming parents. I was trying my best to see the stage with, no kidding, one man in a baseball cap one row in front of me on the right, another man with a too-small-highly-perched baseball cap two rows in front of me on the left, and a grandma holding her bouncing, pig-tailed toddler who was standing on her lap at the aforementioned NBA+ height right in the center. (I tried to get a picture in the dark between sets, but couldn’t get one to come out.)

To top it off, the entire family of adults directly in front of me climbed in and out of their row more than a half dozen times during the middle of various numbers. At one point, one of the women went out (again) to retrieve her child who had just performed. She came back to the row (in the middle of the number, of course) and proceeded to have a lengthy discussion about how they would make room for the child who didn’t have a ticketed seat. People got up and down, shifting seats, debating about asking other ticketed people to move. Finally the woman and her tutu-clad daughter sat — hallelujah! — on my row, with just one person between us.

The girl bounced up and down on the squeaky chair almost continuously. She kept screaming out, “Oh! There’s my friend!” followed by jumping up and down, frantic waving, and more screeching. Then she yelled, “Mom, that’s Ariel! That’s Ariel!” This was mixed with talking, aloud, about random things like wanting a treat, crying about not getting her way, twirling around in front of her chair, and on and on.

Finally the woman next to me put her fingers to her lips and whispered, “Sh!” No response from mom, no response from child. After another five minutes or so of interruption, the woman asked the girl to please keep quiet. The mother turned to the woman and said, “Lay off! She’s five!”

This wasn’t my fight, so I refrained from diving over the chair between us and rolling in the aisles with the mother-at-large. But here’s what I would have said:

This is a performance that students have worked hard all year to prepare for. This is a performance that families and friends have paid and taken time to attend. If your child is not mature enough to behave appropriately, you should see that she is properly cared for and not ruining the performance for everyone else here.

You may notice that this is the longest section in this post. And, strangely, I’m adding it three days after the post originally went live. But this kind of irresponsible, laissez-faire attitude baffles me. Look, we are performers. We love theater and concerts of all kinds. We have six kids! But we do not, and have not, let our children misbehave and disrupt performances (or church meetings or restaurant meals or funerals or…)

Yes, children learn to behave by being exposed to different venues — as they are able to handle them. But they do not learn by going places where they are incapable of meeting the behavioral expectations nor do they learn by being excused from their inappropriate behavior.

I’ve missed the last half of literally dozens of movies when we found out, again, that the child can’t quite make it through a full movie. It’s a family joke how many movies I haven’t seen to the end. That’s just the cost of being a good parent. Deal with it. Get up and take your child to the foyer.

Reserve the standing ovation.

Really, not every single performance on earth deserves a standing ovation. Sincerely. I know (I know!) we want to make our kids feel awesome and accomplished and Broadway-bound. I know. But a standing ovation is supposed to mean something. Something special. Something über special. Something extraordinarily out-of-this-world über special. And the real result of the overused standing O is that the standing O doesn’t mean anything more than “Oh, the performance is over and now we are clapping. But standing up.” Resist peer pressure. Reserve the O for the best performance you’ve ever seen.

Rant out.

Yes, I feel better. Thank you for your time.

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Margot May 24, 2013, 8:53 am

    Can I just say, “Brava!”

  • Andrea May 24, 2013, 9:59 am

    I agree with absolutely every observation in this post. I think some ‘rolling in the aisles” with ‘super oblivious mommy’ would have definitely been in order, barring that, perhaps you should make up some note cards ahead of the next performance with your quote from above. then you can just quietly hand them out to the offenders.
    Oh, and the standing O…How annoying it is to have such a nice view of peoples backsides during the non-standing-O-worthy curtain call. We can see the pervasive ‘sheeple’ attitude even in the fine arts…UGH!

  • Someone you know July 10, 2013, 7:15 pm

    Hey now…I’ve seen you give standing ovations for your kids…and I’m sure YASE or high school doesn’t count as the best performance you’ve ever seen. And it’s a little silly to say someone who’s 5’4″ can’t wear a bun that adds an inch or two to their height, but we still allow people who are 6’4″ into the theater. If we’re talking about blocking views, being tall or chubby should practically be a crime! More than any bun 🙂

  • Alison Moore Smith July 11, 2013, 12:42 pm

    A primary tenant of civil conversation is transparency. You claim to know me, but aren’t willing to reveal your name. Generally, I think there’s not much point in such a claim (or response). It’s kind of a “right to face your accuser” kind of thing, since I can’t answer to a specific charge, because you (intentionally) aren’t revealing much. (Although, yes, I think I have an idea who you are. Contrarian. ;))

    Of course, you did mention YASE. I attended a YASE (Young Ambassador’s Singing Entertainer workshop) performance (including a solo by one of my daughters) just two days ago and I most decidedly did not give a standing ovation to anyone, including my own daughter. And I have video footage to prove it. Even though she was totally awesome sauce amazing.

    I’ve seen dozens of performances this past year (my own kids included) and given a standing O to only one (mentioned below). Since you know me so well, I challenge you to present for discussion real performances where I have stood to cheer. I can think of almost none. I have three notable exceptions.

    1. Often I’m videotaping (when allowed) and after a couple of minutes of doing my protest sit and clap, I will stand so that I can see the thing I’m supposed to be videotaping.
    2. When someone is honored — such as a teacher/director who worked all year and is brought to the stage after a performance — I will stand if I want to honor them. (And maybe even if I don’t but I fear a bad grade will result. 😉 )
    3. When someone does something extraordinary based on their ability/situation as opposed to when compared to all other similar performances. For example, if someone with a handicap has learned a skill far beyond expectation, I would be happy to give a standing O. On rare occasions, this might include children who — while not world class — perform well beyond typical childhood skill.

    The only voluntary standing Os I can recall giving in the past umpteen years have been:

    • BYU ballroom dance final concert 2012 (which is a world class championship organization, I think you’d agree)
    • BYUs Phantom of the Opera 2013 (which was an incredibly professional performance and by far the best college performance I’ve seen in my entire life (and I’ve seen a gazillion) and critics agreed)

    As for height and weight, I think you’ve gone down the path of the nonsensical. The point isn’t that people in front of people might partially block someone’s view. That goes without saying unless you have stadium seating (which most live theater does not). Rather, it is that theater goers should be aware that there are other people in the theater besides themselves. It’s just common courtesy. So while no one expects anyone to remove their own head (or even their muffin top), there is no need to artificially add to the amount of view you block by adding hats, ornaments, or topknots.

    With regard to weight I’d say you do have a case when someone’s body begins overflowing into the next seat. If you’ve been on a long plane flight with that situation, you’ll know it’s not fun.
    Alison Moore Smith recently posted…Celebrate 43 Years of Earth Day StupidityMy Profile

  • Optimalmission July 21, 2013, 11:07 pm

    All I’m going to say is that ANYONE who wears a hat or high bun to the theater is just rude. Of course you have to take your own HEAD, but you don’t have to make yourself taller (or wider) than you are.

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