The World’s Best User’s Guide for the Theatre Virgin
Live theatre. Going to a show. A night at the opera. Whatever we call going to theatre, we will all, without doubt, spend at least a night watching a live performance. The question that follows the decision to go: How do I act? It really is easier than you think…
Very often, live theatre is thought of as something you plan for. You find a restaurant nearby, you dress up, you go to the show, you get drinks afterward, and you go home. That can be fun. I do it all the time because it’s nice to dress differently than I always do. The thing is, though, you don’t have to. Nowhere is it written that theatre must be some grande escapade. Sometimes (and I argue more often) it should be a spur-of-the-moment decision. Come as you are. Just come.
When you do come, approach the show as you want to. Are you coming just to have a nice evening out? Have a nice evening out. Are you coming to maybe solve the world’s problems? Solve them. Either way you come, I can guarantee you something about most shows: You are going to enjoy it AND there is something meaningful to discuss in there.
Walk in with an open mind about what you are seeing. Sure, a title may be offensive or the content borderline risqué, but sometimes that’s point. These things are meant to elicit a reaction. Theatre is emotion after all, not a lecture.
If you’ve heard negative things, let them go. The person/people saying those things may have come on an off night, or the show could truly be terrible. Let them go. Either way. Take it in as you are seeing it. Things are going to happen. It’s live theatre, not a movie.
Take the setting in. Often the lobby space will help tell the story and set-up expectations of the performance about to occur. The set will, too, as will the lighting, the music (or lack thereof), and maybe the smell (YAY! Olfactory-inspired performances are coming back!). Take it all in and consider it. Do it consciously for just a moment. You’re going to do it subconsciously regardless, but giving these things a moment’s thought is never out of order.
We theatre artists have one HUGE request: PLEASE stay off/out of the playing space unless invited in by an actor.
A good play or musical will tell you everything you need to know about how to follow a show within just a few minutes. Some argue this is 5 minutes or an opening number; others argue its 10 or even 15 minutes. Whatever the truth is, listen.
Try not to come late. It’s not always easy and things do happen (I know quite a few actors who need to remember this). If you do come late, enter quietly and sit either in the designated late-comer seats or in the furthest seat back so as to limit distraction to your fellow patrons.
If the lights are dimming, the show is starting. It’s time to end conversations, finish unwrapping the cough drop, sit back, and enjoy. This is also a good time to quickly turn off any noise-making devices. Answering your cell phone while everyone is dying in Hamlet may see you join the dead…
It’s totally awesome to react and vocalize. We actors LOVE it. Laugh, cheer, boo, hiss, cry, gasp, clap, and stomp feet. The Rocky Horror Show practically demands it of us (now whether or not that is the phenomenon of the movie or the show is debatable…), but a show like The Crucible or King Lear would only suffer from it. I know how awesome it is to see a friend or relative onstage and doing it, but it’s not a good time to cheer for them. Nor is it a good time to snap a photo of them. Wait for them after the show and cheer for them when you see them. Have someone take photos of you all together. I guarantee your friend or loved one will bask in it. No matter what, please don’t carry on conversations or ask about the show while it’s going on. Your fellow patrons will thank you. There is time for discussion at intermission and/or after the show.
The curtain drops, applause roars. The audience jumps to its feet in admiration and in laud. As an actor, I sometimes feel the standing ovation is disingenuous, like the audience feels they are expected to. You’re not. If you don’t feel the show deserves the “standing o,” don’t give it. Do applaud, at least. The achievements you have witnessed are not owned solely by the actors you see. MASSIVE contributions are made by a great many people—the director, lighting designer, sound designer, run crew, costumer—applaud them, too.
Further, it’s okay not to like it. Let me say that again: IT IS OKAY NOT TO LIKE IT. There is nothing that can force you to like something don’t. You might not even understand it. There are shows actors very often don’t understand or even misunderstand. It really is okay.
Stay and meet the actors if you want. Many enjoy the chance to chat about the show and their thoughts. Maybe you saw something they never thought of. You might hear about another show coming up that catches your interest or some cool project they’re working on. Actors love to talk about that kind of stuff.
These are best practices for most theatres. They are not a must-do rule book. Some theatres are looser in what they allow, some stricter. The best rule is to call the box office and find out what they expect of audiences. In addition, when you get to theatre take a moment to check around the lobby. There are probably some small signs posted with other instructions.
Given all of this, I think Joe Hanrahan of The Midnight Company puts it best: “Just come. It’s live, it will never happen again, it’s 3D and HD. If you’re misbehaving it’s our own fault for not getting your attention.”
I want to give special thanks to the following people for being sound boards and contributing thoughts to this article: Brooke Owen, Alissa Brooks, Kristin Rion, Melanie Kozak, Doug Erwin, and everyone else who responded with my call for “theatre etiquette.”
For more on theatre etiquette, check out Dominique Morisseau’s article Why I Almost Slapped a Fellow Theatre Patron, and What That Says About Our Theatres.
Sean Michael is a local actor and director as well as founder of The Scene Shop. He has been seen on stages from St. Charles to Grand Center. See what’s next for him on his website.
**DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of THE SCENE SHOP.