Theatre etiquette and unruly audiences. How has it come to this?

17th April 2023

There’s been a lot in the news recently about an absence of theatre etiquette and how some audiences have a very different view of what is acceptable behaviour during a theatre performance.

Only on Good Friday did the performance of ‘The Bodyguard’ at The Palace Theatre, Manchester have to be stopped numerous times because of two people causing a scene and trying to out sing the cast. The police were called, and the performance was also cut short by ten minutes, which of course left the cast and many theatre goers angry and disappointed.

Following this terrible event, the hosts on This Morning had a debate on whether or not it is ok to sing at musicals. It really doesn’t help the cause when you have the popular hosts, such as Vanessa Feltz and Alison Hammond saying that the whole point of going to watch a musical is to sing along to the parts in a song that you know. Feltz said: “When you don’t know the words, you just make them up. I mean, isn’t that what everybody does? Very very loudly while eating an ice cream.

Since these ridiculous comments, which were met with outrage and upset, Hammond has apologised for making light of the situation having not realised how big a problem this is. Like many theatre goers, I don’t think they understand the enormity of the problem as they may not have seen it first-hand and only read it in the media.

Most theatre goers know how to behave. We know we aren’t meant to sing along, heckle the actors, take photographs, record the performance, make calls – all the things that you would never dream of doing. But then there is that small minority who take things too far and ruin it for everyone else.

It’s not just the audience that is being affected, it is the cast, crew and Front of House too. These people have not only trained for years to be on that stage but have also worked tirelessly to create an incredible production. This is their job. Imagine someone coming into your place of work and heckling you or being disruptive so you couldn’t do your job properly. You’d never even entertain that idea, so why is it ok to do it in the theatre?

If people want to sing at shows, then go to an aptly named ‘Sing a longperformance.

Theatre Union, Bectu, has carried out a survey of 1500 theatre staff and uncovered a multitude of anti-social behaviour that they have had to deal with. From violence and sexual harassment to racial slurs and damage to venues. It is shocking. ‘We’ve had to stop people fighting and urinating in their seats’: the ugly new side of theatre audiences | Theatre | The Guardian. Over 90 per cent of respondents have experienced bullying, intimidation, harassment or abuse at work. Almost half were considering leaving theatre because of it.

Bectu has now launched a new campaign called ‘Anything Doesn’t Go’ with the aim of tackling the increasing and extreme anti-social behaviour from UK theatre audiences. You can find out more about it via the link and pledge your support by signing the Safer Theatres Charter.

Head of Bectu, Philippa Childs has said: “It is clear the industry needs to do better by its workers and we are calling on venues and industry bodies to commit to working with us to tackle this issue. Theatre professionals work incredibly long hours and are some of the lowest paid in the creative industries. That they are expected to put up with this behaviour simply while doing their jobs is wholly unacceptable.

The availability of alcohol in theatre venues does play a huge part in theatre disturbances. Could theatres stop people who have clearly had too much to drink from entering the venue, or prevent them from drinking too much during performances or ban alcohol during intervals? The trouble is, many venues rely on the sale of alcohol so I’m not sure that a ban would happen.

It’s not just singing along that is an issue. Taking photos and filming performances is also rife, which has opened up a dialogue about banning mobile phones.

The most recent and shocking violation was after nude images of James Norton appearing on stage in ‘A Little Life’ at The Richmond Theatre were leaked to the press. They were published on the MailOnline and were quickly taken down, but still printed in the physical newspaper. Absolutely disgraceful. 

Theatre ticket prices have shot up. Why spend your hard-earned money on tickets if you’re just going to ruin it for yourself and others and potentially get yourself arrested? If that is your plan then save your money and just stay at home!

I can understand some disturbances following the return to theatre. We’d been away for two years; we wanted to celebrate and show our gratitude and appreciation of being back. People were excited and perhaps a little more vocal. Things were a bit more relaxed then, but two years on, we really should know how to behave.

Theatre audiences, casts and workers deserve better.