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Rethinking Theater Etiquette

Equity in the Arts
A yellow legal pad lies on a wood surface. On top of it are a pad of blue sticky notes in the shape of a flower, two pens, a smaller, orange pad of paper, and a white slip of paper that reads "Playwright's Rules of Engagement."

I will see anything I get a free ticket to. It doesn’t matter if I’ve heard of it, it doesn’t matter what borough it’s in, it doesn’t even matter if I think I probably will not like it. If I am offered a free ticket to a play, I will go. And until I started writing for the theater section of my college newspaper in New York, I thought this was the obvious position to take.

As a staff writer, I was offered complimentary tickets on press nights to around three shows a week -- always a pair of seats -- and more often than not I ended up going alone. I could not give my tickets away, and maybe it’s because my friends didn’t like me much, that’s definitely possible. But if they were telling the truth, the most common reason for not wanting to go was:

“I’m not really a theater person.”

What does that mean? I was invited to everything ranging from experimental pieces in black box theaters, to blockbusting Broadway musicals, and even one show where you downloaded the dialogue onto your phone and then chased the cast through Central Park while listening to it. How does all that get grouped under one umbrella? And why would people rather get wet than stand under it?

“It’s just not for me.”

Ah. This one, I understood. It wasn’t that my peers didn’t want to go to the theater. It was that they suspected the theater didn’t want them to go to it. And they weren’t wrong. Even as I began to write this post, I hesitated at first to use my experience in college as a point of entry, worried that contextualizing the piece from the point of view of a student would lead to readers taking it less seriously. Even now, I have the urge to add some piece of information that makes it clear, “by the way I’m not still a student!” (Look at that, I did it). An impulse that I now realize is, of course, part of the problem.

On August 23rd, playwright Nick Gandiello posted on his Facebook (yes, we are going to talk about Facebook, because it’s a thing that exists, prominently, in the world, and deriding the relevance of things perceived to be lowbrow is what got Theater into this mess), “Today I witnessed an audience member get so frustrated with the engaged, passionate reactions of the younger audience around them that they sshhh’d an actor who had just entered on a line.” (Nick clarified that he observed it from across the space, and that the patron wasn't shushing a student. They seemed agitated by the noise of the audience in general, and when an actor entered abruptly while speaking, it seemed they thought it was another audience member, and shushed the actor. They seemed to immediately realize their error).

In my experience, many audience members are allergic the expressions, and sometimes even just the presence, of audience members who react to art differently than they do. Theater Etiquette, this unwritten code of how one should act during a show, has some good points. But, like any old document, it needs some updates. And who better to make them than Steinberg-award-winning playwright and author-of-the-play-Nick-and-his-students-were-attending-during-the-above-mentioned-performance herself, Dominique Morisseau.

Dominique has written on the subject before, in her article for American Theatre, Why I Almost Slapped a Fellow Theatre Patron, and What That Says About Our Theatres, which highlights how concerns over having your reactions policed by fellow patrons are exacerbated for people of color (an article that has sparked discussion at The Lark, on more than one occasion). Now, she’s flipped the script by changing the way we talk about Theater Etiquette from a list of “DON'Ts” to a list of “DOs.”

In the program for her play Pipeline, which recently completed a run at Lincoln Center, there wasn’t just a neon slip telling you in bold letters to turn off your cellphone. Dominique also included an insert entitled “Playwright’s Rules of Engagement.” It is a welcoming document. She includes statements like, “You are allowed to have audible moments of reaction and surprise,” and, “My work requires a few ‘um hmmms’ and ‘uhn uhnnns’ should you need to use them. Just maybe in moderation,” and she wrote it all down because there is no need for it to be a secret. There is no need to have been previously indoctrinated in Theater.

Experiencing the stories told through theater must become a more universal experience. You shouldn’t have to be a “theater person” to enjoy going to the theater. I'd like to say that again.


I wanted to emphasize that, because I think it’s important, and I wanted to do so not in some insider blog way, but in the most universal way I know how - in caps lock. Because of course I hope “blog people” aren’t the only people who read this. And guess what, that was really easy to do, because there is no "insider blog way." There aren’t “blog people” and “not blog people.” That’s not a thing. People just read. And nobody tells them they’re doing it wrong.

Now, I know reading an article isn’t the same thing as seeing a play. I know this. For one thing, seeing a play costs money. Sometimes it costs a lot of money. So much money in fact that there is a tendency to cite ticket prices as the prevailing reason young people don’t go to the theater. But while cost is certainly a barrier, it’s the entitlement the price instills in ticket buyers, more than the price itself, that acts as the more pernicious deterrent. When audience members use the argument “I paid a lot of money to see this show” as justification for shushing, what they are really saying is “my experience is more important than yours.”

Shushing a person because of their reaction to the art (I am not advocating for the conversation the people behind you are having about where they’re going to have dinner after the show) is telling them, don’t enjoy the play. And if you tell someone “Don’t enjoy the play,” they won’t. They will leave. They will go enjoy something else and they won’t come back.

I sat down with my partner at Lincoln Center for a recent performance of Pipeline and when he opened his program and saw the Rules he grabbed my arm. When I looked, his mouth was open and he was pointing to the first Rule on the list.

“You are allowed to laugh audibly.”

He smiled. “This is for me!” He said.

My partner has a caps lock laugh. And I love hearing it because my partner is also a former self-proclaimed “not a theater person,” and every reACTion an ACTor evokes from him is an affirmation that “not a theater person” is not a thing, and that anyone can and should enjoy theater. Unfortunately, it’s also a laugh that has earned him glares, shushes, and even one “punk,” each of which is an affirmation that “theater person” is a thing, and that theater people are, in fact, not very nice.

Why are we trying to silence each other? Why are we asking one another to hide the fact that we’re affected by art? Buying a ticket to a play is buying a ticket to a public place. I believe erasure of the people around me, not reminders of them, detracts from my experience. Theater is live. There are people on stage and in the room who can hear us which is why we should make noise. Take up space. Make space for others.

In the final Rule, Dominique writes, “This is community.” We go to the theater to be part of a collective experience. So, let people know that whatever feelings they’re going through, they’re not going through them alone. Make some noise. And when the announcement gets made, just before the lights go down, to “enjoy the show,” take it to heart.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2017 edition of "A Bird's Eye View," The Lark's Monthly Newsletter. Sign up for our mailing list to get Lark news and more stories like this one straight to your inbox!