Features Essays Published 2 January 2018

Theatre Prefects

Alice Saville explores why it's time to stop talking about 'theatre etiquette', and to start thinking about the behaviour of all sections of the audience.
Alice Saville

If I read another article complaining about 21st century theatre etiquette I will scream with a howl so primal it’ll curdle the ice creams and melt the boiled sweets of errant theatregoers across the West End. It’s shockingly easy journalism-about-theatre – something that’s guaranteed to get some clicks, a whistle to summon the large crowd of people who think society is going to the dogs.

A few years back, these cries crystallised into the Theatre Charter – an online pledge to observe certain rules for audience behaviour with a hair-raising penchant for ALL CAPS PRONOUNCEMENTS. More recently, blogger West End Producer has launched a satirical-but-not-particularly-funny ‘Theatre Prefect’ scheme, handing out badges as part of the promotion for his new books.

To run through the obvious objections first: the tone of many of the articles complaining about the percieved decline in audience behaviour is full of thinly veiled anti-working class prejudice. The disapproval that’s directed at what people wear is particularly unpleasant: why shouldn’t people be comfortable in flip flops? Or tracksuits? Or whatever else will make their three hour-plus stint in a cramped seat more tolerable?

These periodic outbreaks of ‘theatre etiquette’ enforcement often also ignore the fact that theatre is a communal experience, and centres on the energy of people in a shared space. Collective laughter, or intakes of breath, or the bit where a riled 14-year-old shouts ‘Oh my days!’ is what makes it so exciting.

Both the ‘Theatre Prefect’ and the Theatre Charter are infuriating for the pedantic, school-teacherish spirit they’re conceived in, which makes them really easy to dismiss and/or laugh at. But talking about ‘etiquette’ puts an unnecessarily hierarchical, classist spin on a different question – which is how other audience members can shape your experience of a performance, for the worse or for the better.

I’ve got a bit of skin in this game, because I worked as a theatre usher for four years. It’s a job where your main responsibilities are: 1) to make sure everyone’s sitting in the right seat, at the right time. 2) To be prepared to keep everyone safe in the event of a fire, or another emergency. 2) To make sure the audience behave in a way that supports the people on stage, and means everyone can enjoy the show.

Performing these duties meant spending a lot of time (literally months of my life) staring at people, staring at a stage. I worked at the Young Vic, which at the time had an unrivalled emphasis on getting in audiences from different backgrounds: leading the Two Borough’s scheme, Kirsten Adam would bring in groups of people who’d experienced homelessness, or teenagers using mental health services, or groups of young adults with learning difficulties. The ushers were briefed on what was going on, and were ready to support any particular needs these people had. These audiences made our job both more interesting and massively more rewarding. There were also large numbers of free and cheaper tickets available to local people who didn’t normally go to the theatre, and to young people. There’s distinct, special atmosphere that comes from being at a venue that’s a community, not a ‘luxury experience’, and is actively working to invite people in.

When I was ushering, there was also a lot of chat about phones and a lot of discussion about whether to confiscate crisps. But these discussions weren’t drawn up along class lines, and they weren’t really about ‘etiquette’. Worries about etiquette reached their height in times of mass social mobility such as the  Victorian or post-war eras, and were born out of anxiety around class. Percieved breaches of etiquette (slurping soup, eating fruit with your hands) were designed to weed out and humiliate lower-class interlopers into a snobby upper-class society. That’s something we ushers definitely weren’t doing. We were targeting specific behaviours that damaged the theatregoing experience, and they were found in some of the audience members that Nancy Mitford would have most approved of. My pet hates were the big groups of smartly dressed men who thought they were above the rules. They’d smuggle in full glass bottles of wine under their jackets (glass isn’t allowed in the auditorium, because it’s likely to smash and hurt people, especially in the event of an evacuation). They’d jump queues, or refuse to move seats to let people get past, or spontaneously upgrade their seats as the lights went down (unaware that we were saving those spots for latecomers).

Less infuriating, but more sad-making, were the school teachers who’d herd in a class of kids, then sit muttering to each other or ostentatiously yawning while the children watched, rapt. Or the middle class parents who thought they were above joining in for the audience participation bits of kids’ shows, and sat there mutely next to their inhibited children. Or the bolshy couples who felt entitled to be let in after the show had started, and would harangue us for the full 10 minutes it took to reach the first latecomers point. Or the older people who would tell off teenagers for laughing at bits they had every right to find funny, whatever the director might have intended.

I’m aware of the irony that I’m now complaining about audience behaviour – just like the articles I’m complaining about. But it’s all in the service of showing that there are loads of ways to be disrespectful towards a performance, and not all of them involve rustly sweets and mobile phones. [Plus, for every example of the latter that looks egregiously terrible, another might have a very good reason behind it, like a diabetic person who needs sugar, or someone texting a panicking babysitter].

It’s probably fair to say that screen time and smartphones have taken their toll on everyone’s attention span – how could a constantly-buzzing entertainment centre revolving around YOU, tucked in your pocket, ever do anything else? This Christmas, I noticed that every single member of my family now double screens, swiping on a tablet in front of the telly. It’s good, because we only bicker over what to watch for the sake of form, but I worry we’re losing the complete relaxation-inducing feeling of being immersed in one shared experience of a film or tv show.

It’s the same feeling you get at the theatre, the self-forgetfulness that comes from being totally engrossed in what’s happening on stage. I feel really strongly that that feeling is a precious one (like reading, like being at a concert or gig) with near-magical powers – to reduce anxiety to a murmur, to bend your mind in new ways, to take you out of your own head and into other peoples’.

Yes, ideally, this quality of being engrossed would be strong enough to overpower a few rustling crisp packets or a texting neighbour, but it isn’t always. Some people have screen-addled attention spans, or ADHD, or sensory disorders that make them hyper-sensitive to noise and movement around them. Or they just subliminally pick up on the sense that other people in the audience don’t want to be there, and don’t care enough about everyone else’s experience to try to overcome it (or leave). There’s a kind of quality that comes from being surrounded by people who respect the performance they’re watching, and are excited to be there. A kind of specialness that’s worth preserving.

But codes of conduct, or lists, or prefects, or any other form of audience-led intervention aren’t going to help when perceptions of ‘good behaviour’ are subjective, and governed by class. The ‘Theatre Prefect’ idea is particularly horrible because it turns ideas around good behaviour into a weapon that can be wielded at anyone the wearer doesn’t like the look of  – already a problem, when young people, working class people and/or people of colour are disproportionately likely to have their behaviour policed and criticised.

It’s not up to opinionated busybodies (hello!) on the internet to fix this. It’s up to theatres to take responsibility for the atmosphere that surrounds a performance, and for the expectations it has of audiences. Ideally, everyone should respect and care about the space, as participants in a special event, rather than passive consumers. It’s not a problem if one person sneaks a quick look at their phone to check if an important message has arrived, or takes a few bites of a sandwich to take the edge off their ravening post-work hunger – as long as that person understands they’re part of a temporary community, and that their needs have to be balanced with those of everyone around them. The very worst theatregoing attitude is “I’ve paid so I’ll behave how I like” – whether that’s displayed in loudly eating crisps, or in telling off strangers and policing new members of the audience.

At the Young Vic, ushers asked each audience member individually to turn off the phones – it was time-consuming, but it did seem to work. If we saw people taking photos during the show, we felt empowered to go and ask them, politely, to stop, and to explain that it was distracting for actors, and infringed on the designer’s copyright. There’s so much more space for theatres to enter into conversations with audiences about how they behave in the theatre (especially if those venues are closely embedded in the community that surrounds them, and actively working to invite it in) – and to build understanding of what being part of a temporary community means. All this should be possible without even thinking about using the word ‘etiquette’, unless you literally are the reanimated carcass of Emily Post.

So I hope anyone who’s told off by someone wearing a theatre prefect badge is ready to ‘shhh’ them in return. We already have theatre prefects, they’re called ‘ushers’.