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Isn't That Annoying?

A primer on how to behave when you attend the theater.

By New York City
[Editor's Note: The general belief is that people don't like to be told what to do or how to behave -- yet "How Not to Buy Tickets," an article posted by TheaterMania in July 2004, was one of the most widely read features in the site's history. That article was written by a box office agent who wished to remain anonymous; but Craig Coursey, general manager of the Broadway New York theater memorabilia shops in the Times Square area, is proudly putting his name to the following primer on how to behave once you've arrived at the theater to see a show. Several Broadway notables were only too happy to talk with Craig about audience behavior that they find particularly rude.]

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I like to get to a Broadway show early; after all, I am attending some of the finest theater in the world and I don't want to feel rushed in the experience. I read my program, use the restroom, have a cocktail, and gape at my fellow patrons (I like to see what they've chosen to wear to a show for which, often, they have paid well over $100). Before the show begins, I want to take care of all the things that make noise or might be distracting to others.

Now, that is my routine, and I don't expect everyone else in the world to follow it; but there are limits to acceptable behavior. A while back, I was fortunate enough to receive complimentary tickets to The Full Monty. I thought myself doubly fortunate that the seat next to me was vacant, giving me some extra legroom. As the overture began, a woman was ushered to what had been that empty seat, and I noticed that she was fumbling in her purse for something. I hoped it was to turn off her cell phone, or maybe she just needed a tissue. Alas, it was neither of these things: She took from her purse an entire box of Dunkin' Donut holes, and, for the duration of the first act, she managed to down the majority of its contents. I was too flabbergasted to even know how to react. (When the curtain came down on Act I, she turned and offered me a donut hole!)

I am no longer at a loss for words. Here are some helpful tips on how to behave properly when seeing a show. Read, learn, then go and enjoy a play or musical -- but don't forget that I could be seated next to you. If I have failed to cover something, please remember this general rule: If you would not do something in church or in your conservative granny's plastic-coated living room, then do not do it at the theater!

  • Arrive on time. Even if you are seated late during a blackout or set change, it still disturbs people who are trying to concentrate on the show. Ana Lisi, a long time Broadway box office assistant treasurer, says: "Arriving late is incredibly disrespectful and disruptive to both the performers and to the people who came to see and hear the show. Unlike television programs," she adds, "a live performance cannot be re-run!"

  • Under no circumstance is it acceptable for your cell phone to ring, or even to vibrate if it makes any noise at all, while a show is in progress. I am going to say this even though it seems quite obvious: During a performance, you may not talk on your cell phone for any reason. If your Aunt Lulu is dying in the hospital, then perhaps you should choose another night to see Spamalot. In addition, I do not think it is acceptable to text message people during a show; it may be relatively silent, but the illumination of the cell phone screen is annoying to others. (If you need to communicate so desperately during the hour/hour-and-a-half per act of a show, I'm going to assume that you're an air traffic controller or a bookie.)

  • Check your coat and packages. Seating space is very limited. Your coat, if brought to your seat, must fit in the space allotted to you. I call the worst offenders "hangovers"; these are the people who think it's okay to take up the space of the person behind them by draping their coats over the back of their chairs. I spent a very uncomfortable evening at the opening of Shirley Valentine because a certain theme-song singing TV waitress/actress thought that my chair was her personal coatroom!

  • Food should not be eaten in the seating area of a theater. Broadway veteran Jennifer Smith, who's currently treading the boards in The Producers, told me she has "actually witnessed a patron eating a McDonald's Happy Meal during a show!" Perhaps the eats made that person happy, but what of those seated around him? I know, I know: They sell those enticing boxes of candy, etc. right there at the concession stands in the theaters, but these items should be consumed in the lobby area or during intermission. No one eats silently. The problem may not even be that your chewing is noisy; the rustling of the packaging can be loud, as well. (A friend of mine told me that he found the trail mix packaging at the Roundabout particularly noisy.)

  • No one in the theater should be talking except the performers. If you can't hear properly, let me recommend the free headsets available in the lobby; this will avoid your having to ask your companion what's going on. If you don't understand the plot or want to comment on the lovely physique of one of the actors, please wait until intermission or the fall of the final curtain before asking questions or making comments.

  • Please realize that "the use of cameras and recording devices during the performance is forbidden" applies to you. I understand that your former dance teacher from Miss Zeeta's School of Dance in Grand Rapids may be making her Broadway debut and that you feel the need to capture this momentous moment on film, but you must wait until after the show for a photo opportunity. The process of taking a picture involves aligning the camera with the subject, which invariably blocks the sightlines of a fellow patron. Above and beyond that, flash photography may actually endanger the performers, who can be momentarily blinded or distracted by the spray of light. Set pieces in shows are often very heavy and move automatically on tracks controlled by a computer. Do you really want to be responsible for the maiming of a Broadway hoofer just so you can show folks back home that you went to see Footloose? I didn't think so!

  • Don't block the aisles. Broadway theaters are designed to seat as many people as possible. The aisles tend to be narrow, especially in the older theaters, and this is why it is not acceptable for you to stand in them while having long conversations before the show or during intermission. Broadway legend Chita Rivera says that one of her greatest dislikes in terms of theater etiquette is when "people arrive late and take forever to sit down." If you spot your old pal Liza or you just have to say hello to Hal, wave and gesture that you'll talk to them later in the lobby. (Lobbies are lovely areas just outside of the auditorium that were designed for people to schmooze and mingle.)

  • When bringing young people or children to the theater, be sure that you have selected the appropriate show for their age and attention span. It's not fair to the little ones (or the patrons who must abide them) to bring them to see a show that will not hold their interest. If I choose to attend a matinee of Beauty and the Beast, I expect that there'll be lots of noise and movement in the audience; it's the nature of the beast. (Get it?) If, however, I decide to take in a Saturday evening performance of Democracy, I would and should expect little Johnny and Janie to be at home, tucked away in their little beds.

  • Dress properly. If someone were to ask me, "Honey, should I wear the black dress with the pearls or the silver lamé with the diamonds?" in regard to their attire for the theater, I'd be happy with either choice. Unfortunately, more often than not these days, the choice seems to be between flip-flops or work boots and sweatpants or ripped blue jeans. For many folks, going to a Broadway show is a very special event, and it seems odd to dress for such an event as if one were preparing to do the laundry or haul some trash to the curb. Wearing something nice when attending the theater can really ice the cake.

  • During a performance, never inflict on others your negative feelings about the show. We all enjoy things differently, and one person's favorite play of all time can be another's worst nightmare. Chita Rivera -- who is being quoted twice here because she's a living legend! -- says, "It bothers me when people become irritated because you are responding enthusiastically to a show or performance and they don't seem to get it." This does not mean that because you love a show and have seen it 80 times, you should speak the lines along with an actor -- or, God forbid, sing along! In Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, the grim Grotto sums it up perfectly: "To force your dreadful singing voice on somebody, or even a crowd of people, is one of the world's most wicked crimes."

  • Don't try to leave your seat until the final curtain has fallen. Two-time Tony Award winner Thommie Walsh says, "I hate it when people leave two minutes before the end of a show. As a performer, it makes me feel like I didn't do a very good job; and as an audience member, it makes me wonder why anyone would want to get back to New Jersey two minutes earlier." Disclaimer: I live in New Jersey, and Thommie was just joking about that. But he wasn't joking about leaving early. Stay through the curtain call! It lasts just a couple of minutes at most, and sometimes it can be very interesting to see the cast step out of character.
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[Broadway New York, Theatre Circle, and One Shubert Alley sell theater-related items such as mugs, T-shirts, key chains, recordings, scripts, and vocal scores. For more information, click here.]


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