I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Theatre Etiquette, and recent memes that I have shared made me increasingly aware that this is actually a rather delicate and complex matter. So, let’s unpack, shall we?

The above image is the meme that brought about all these thoughts and conversations, and I’m very grateful to the people who commented – particularly those that politely took the time to point out the possible issues here for audiences who are disabled or neurodivergent. I’m also grateful to the folks at ‘All That Dazzles’ for this bit of levity. Now, to me this meme is tongue-in-cheek opportunity to have a rant, so why did people take umbrage? Well, to begin with I think that we need to acknowledge that the very term ‘Theatre Etiquette’ is pretty vague, and suggests that the way people are expected to behave in a theatre is the same as in a cabaret club or music venue. This, at least, was part of the reaction I received (probably because I am @thecabaretgeek) from my followers and fans online.

But even within the hallowed walls of a theatre, the way we are expected and indeed invited to behave varies wildly depending on the show we are seeing. Is there really a world in which the audience should experience and respond to a classic production of The Rocky Horror Show the same way they would a traditional offering of Uncle Vanya and get it right both times? What about the interaction of pantomime? Or a Juke Box Musical which literally invites you to get up in the aisle and dance and sing along? My first outing to the theatre, post-lockdown – he said, like there aren’t going to be any more. Right? RIGHT?! – was to see ‘Here Come The Boys’ at the London Palladium. For the most part, this was a vehicle for the professional dancers from ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ and the very first thing we were told by the compère was to take photos, sing along a get up and dance. Twenty minutes later, it was evident the audience were essentially being asked to make up for this particular productions failings, but I digress.

Now look, I have the enormous privilege of being taken to the theatre since the age of seven, and had made very clear to me ‘the rules’ – unless otherwise stated. But, if ‘Here Come The Boys’ is the first theatre visit you’ve ever taken even if you are a grown-ass adult, how on earth are you to know that your trip to ‘Hamlet’ the week after will have you met with frowns, glares and shushes for simply behaving exactly as you were told to? People are not mind readers. We need guidance. We need to be told and we need to understand why.

When I teach the art of cabaret and compèring in my various training courses, I often suggest that the best way to facilitate an audience’s experience is to treat them like a group of kindergarten toddlers. We crave rules. We want to be led. What is the job of a bus driver? To get you from A to B, right? How? SAFELY! So, take control of the wheel, people. Don’t throw all your toys out of the pram after the event. Anticipate it. Expect it. You don’t have to be a theatre professional to have seen countless movies and television adaptation of theatre-goers in Shakespearean times booing performers off-stage, throwing rotten fruit, and copulating in the back (sometimes not even!) row during a performance. In the tremendous book ‘The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi’ by Andrew McConnell Stott, there is more than one anecdote of an actual murder in the auditorium during a show and they STILL didn’t stop performing! Now, I’m not saying any of those things were right then or acceptable now, but I am asking – bearing in mind the two examples just given – when these rules of etiquette were drawn up? And by whom?

It is refreshing to find a rant online like the one we began with, not least because most other rails against this so-called ‘bad behaviour’ are so often centred around the needs and desires of the artistes and not the audience as a whole, bad eggs notwithstanding. In over thirty years of straddling the dual roles of both performer and promoter/booker/producer, I suppose that I have a rather unique point of view when it comes to who’s agenda should be served. As the years have gone on, I have been privy – both backstage and in my teaching work – to an increasing amount of wish-list demands from my fellow performers, from not wanting to be touched to demanding tips and free drinks from an audience as standard, to insisting that the purchasing of merchandise be somehow mandatory in supporting the arts. Some of these issues have more import that others, but the voice of the artiste and how much agency they have over where and how they do their thing, is increasing every year. Long overdue, you may think, and I would not disagree with you, but in an industry that has struggled for decades to get bums on seats, do you really want to add your voice to the list of reasons why people should just stay home? This is their night out, and your job. They are the customer and you are in service. Sorry if that’s not your bag, but it’s where I always try to start. Even if your onstage clown is a vile, mercenary dissenter of the human race (ever seen me host in drag?!), you can still be of and in service. I am reminded once again of the gift my fellow theatre-maker Sarah-Louise Young (@slytheatremaker) gave me when she asked of a piece we were making together, ‘Who Is This For?’

So, fellow performers? Who is this for? There is no wrong answer, and each thing you make may have a different response. But isn’t it a brilliant question? Does it speak to this debate? I think it should. It does to me.

YES, of course we need to be able to hear ourselves and our cast mates over Karen and Tony having a full blown convo throughout Act Two, but isn’t it, frankly, more important that Karen and Tony aren’t p***ing off the other audience members around them? They’ll be the ones that won’t return to theatre in a hurry, not you. You’ll just go ‘bad day at the office’, rant about it on Twitter – making one more person feel unwelcome within the doors of the venerated space – and then get on with your life and career, should there be one…

In the art of cabaret, we break the fourth wall. It can hardly be classed as cabaret if you do not. If that term is unfamiliar to you, think the protagonists of Chewing Gum, Deadpool and Fleabag speaking direct to camera and you’re half-way there. Panto does it. So does any production of Rocky Horror. And Shakespeare does it too – depending on which character you are. If you have spent your childhood at pantomime, then Rocky Horror in adolescence and then discovered the anarchic, underground revolution that is cabaret and burlesque clubs, you are hardly well-schooled in sitting quietly in a row of strangers, stifling your coughs and waiting 45 minutes plus before re-mortgaging your house for a Choc Ice and then doing it all over again. On the contrary, like ‘Here Come The Boys’, the cabaret compère will more than likely instruct you on how and when to respond, and encourage you to do so. A little like the Toastmaster of the Music Halls in the time of Joseph Grimaldi.

Compères guide. They lead. They facilitate for all in the room. And they do it with originality, flair, character and – most importantly, the personal touch. Sometimes I give the people talking amongst themselves more attention. Because I know it’s what they want. So I give three minutes over to that and they feel seen and the rest of our collective two or three hours together is smoother because of it. And I’ve asserted my authority – hopefully with some humour and charm. I fear that, in comparison, we have become entirely deaf to the dreary, repetitive and more-often-than-not recorded announcement to turn off phones, etc that have been a daily soundtrack to us since our first trip to the cinema…

The final mention should go to our brothers, sisters and butterflies who are neurodivergent and disabled. There are people who cannot stay silent or still for two hours. Or four twenty minutes, for that matter. This is not their fault and they have no control over it. They are not a danger to you or anyone else. Don’t we want these people to feel welcome at the theatre? Because the meme we began with certainly won’t do that. In 2019, I performed my first ever ‘relaxed’ performance of pantomime (or any other theatrical form, actually). Cinderella at the Regent Ipswich offered one matinee performance where the lights didn’t flash, the whizzes didn’t bang and my pal Gavin Ashbarry and I, as Ugly Sisters, were invited to be slightly less ‘ugly’ in our attitudes. Bravo to that, if it encourages more people to shows and promotes inclusivity. Pretty shocking that I had to be a professional live entertainer for thirty years before learning such a thing existed or was possible though, eh? Sat at the back row of a musical the other week, a chap near the front needed to go to the loo three times in the 1hr 10 mins of the first half. He was extremely discreet and quiet, and sensibly had sat himself on the end of an aisle. None of this stopped the woman two seats from me from pointing and laughing at him with her friend every time he had to go. Really? Dude.

So, as per usual, I don’t have a definitive answer. I never do. I don’t know it all, but I’m sure my writing style can come across as though I do. I fear that it will take the arts a long time to return to the busy and prolific pre-pandemic times, and I would simply urge theatre professionals to consider this before posting a comment or meme that could turn off a theatregoer for life. We need them a lot more than they need us…

Enjoy reading my blog? Why not buy me a coffee to say thanks: