Theatre Etiquette, Vol. 6, Issue 3

The late Arthur Friedman, respected theatre critic of the Boston Herald, did not suffer fools gladly, especially in the theatre. Arthur taught Etiquetteer a great deal about Perfect Propriety in the audience during years of productions, but recently Etiquetteer was brought back to a Lyric Stage Company performance of A Shaina Maidel in their old tiny theatre on Charles Street. Those who remember the old Lyric will recall a stage level with the first row of seats (on three sides), making front-row patrons part of the set whether they wanted to be or not. Sitting in the front row with Arthur, Etiquetteer suddenly felt it necessary to consult the program. Arthur stopped this at once , explaining later that not only was it disrespectful to the actors to ignore them visibly when they were less than eight feet away, but also distracting to others in the audience who could not help but see you as part of the scene.

Arthur’s lesson flashed vividly before Etiquetteer at a recent performance of See What You Wanna See at the new Lyric Stage. The new theatre also has a stage at floor level and seats on three sides, but now there are more seats and they are arranged in amphitheater or stadium style. The other important thing to know is that the actors enter and exit through the aisles. So you can imagine the distraction during an important scene in Act I when a woman got up from her seat in Stage Right, walked to stage level, walked in front of everyone in her section, and left the theatre! Keep in mind that the actors were only about six feet from her. It was impossible not to notice her either, since her pale pastel sweater caught all the lights. Her reentry a little later from another part of the theatre created just as much distraction.

Audience etiquette is deteriorating, and even performers as distinguished as Patti Lupone are noticing. In a recent New York Times article about certain New York theatres permitting food at seats, Ms. Lupone remembered watching a front-row popcorn fight while performing in Sweeney Todd. Etiquetteer had hoped civilization had evolved beyond the Elizabethan bear garden, but we seem to be slipping back. So here are Etiquetteer’s Very Basic Guidelines for Audience Propriety:

  1. Be on time. Bostonian audiences are particularly prone to tardiness, and Etiquetteer is mighty tired of hearing people blame it on parking and traffic. Allow extra time, and no more excuses. This is especially true if you’re seated in the center of the row!
  2. For heaven’s sake, go to the bathroom before the performance starts! Etiquetteer should not have to tell you this.
  3. Sit down and stay seated. Do not leave your seat for any reason once the show has started. If you suddenly feel like you have to visit the restroom, hold it. In the words of Judy Tenuta, "Suffer!"
  4. Refreshments are not Perfectly Proper in the theatre. Popcorn, soda, Junior Mints, etc., might be fine in a cinema, but not the theatre or concert hall. Cough drops, of course, are sometimes necessary. You’ll distract others less by having them easy to get at. This does not mean in a special zippered compartment in your purse under your seat.
  5. If you’re sitting in the first three rows, you are part of the performance because everyone else in the theatre can see you. You show respect to performers and audience by notcalling attention to yourself.

Thank you for letting Etiquetteer rant a bit. Now go and sin no more.By the way, Arthur Friedman could also be a saucy tease. He once offered Etiquetteer $100 to go onstage and sit in a chair that was part of the set. Needless to say, Etiquetteer’s Perfect Propriety cannot be bought!

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