How to improve theater-going manners in your audience.

I got an email from a passionate yet disgruntled theatergoer recently who told me that several of her recent show-going experiences were marred by not-so-polite audience members who texted, gabbed, ate, etc. their way through the performance.

I’m sure we all can relate.

It wasn’t always this way.  Theatergoing manners (like manners in general) have been on the decline over the past 20-30 years.  It used to be that in addition to a certain expected dress from audience members (which I still advocate), there was a certain way to behave.

And, as our audience expanded, and our ability to sit still has waned, some manners have gone out the window.

So what do we do about it?  Do we scold and snob-out, spanking those that act-up and tell them they’re not welcome in our hallowed theatrical houses?

Well, that’s the easy way, and it would also be the wrong way.

Remember, on Broadway anyway, we’ve got some attendance issues, so we have to make sure we aren’t pushing people away from going to the theater.  And frankly, there are some things we may never change (as much as I’d like to see people dress up for the theater again . . . in 2013, comfort wins out . . . like  it won out when people stopped dressing up for flights).

But there are things we can do.  Movies have had similar issues with talking and the like (demonstrating that this is a societal issue, not one unique to the theater), and they added “Please don’t talk during the movie” pre-roll to their films years ago.

We don’t have trailers, so we have to get a little more creative.  And let’s face it, no one, from a kid to an adult likes to be told they have to “behave,” so the task at hand is a hard one.  But here are some ideas:

  • Create a standardized (and Broadway League approved) Top Ten list of theater etiquette (But maybe call it “How to Best Enjoy Your Theatergoing Experience”) and put this in every Playbill on Broadway.  Oh, and then try to pass it around to other theaters as well.  If it’s identical everywhere, it’ll take firmer root.  (You can also slip it into ticket envelopes as well – wherever and whenever, but get it out.)
  • Manners stick when they are taught early.  Anyone running a children’s theater, should spend five minutes before each show teaching their juvenile audiences how to politely watch the theater, so that they don’t grow up to be juvenile delinquent theater goers.
  • If you have access to your customer’s email addresses (which unfortunately we don’t on Broadway without paying), send them a message on the day of the performance, including an etiquette list above.
  • Etiquette is also contagious. Train your staff, box office, managers, and so on to treat everyone like they are attending a “proper” event and you’ll see your audience’s attitude change as well.  Don’t you act differently when you walk in a library or a museum?
  • Is your theater clean and pristine?  Broken Windows theory is a real thing.  People act according to the surroundings that they are in.  If you treat your space with more respect, people will treat it and everything inside it with more respect as well.
  • Install ejector seats?

This is a toughie.  It’s a problem that we’re never going to eradicate, but we can improve.

What are some of your ideas on how we can improve theatergoing etiquette?  Comment them below, and maybe we all can join the fight in improving theater manners.  Because when the experience of going to the theater is a more pleasurable one, people just may come back more often.  (And maybe I’ll go ahead and create that Top Ten List I mentioned above myself for a future blog post.)


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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.