Eating at the theatre – obnoxious or pretentious?

There have been recent discussions about the role of theatre etiquette in modern society, from people, including Imelda Staunton, saying that it should simply be unacceptable to – for example eat – in theatres to others trying to break down all rules of behaviour related to ‘traditional’ theatre-going, in an attempt to make theatre more broadly accessible. I mentioned the discussion on this blog a few months ago, and decided that it was worth a whole post, because it’s an interesting topic, which seems to polarise opinion.

*Author’s note* I should clarify here that I am talking about legal behaviour which is arguably not the “best” theatre etiquette, rather than illegal behaviour, such as filming actors/productions or photographing copyright sets. The questions about whether bootlegged theatre makes it accessible exist, but the ways to make theatre accessible should be legal, and bootlegging is not. This is a discussion of etiquette not law. *End note*

Discussions about how to behave at the (mainstream) theatre have existed since we’ve had theatres, and the rules have changed again and again: in the Early Modern period everyone spoke throughout performances in the playhouses, and it was common to heckle performers who were felt to be performing less well. By the nineteenth century, theatre and opera were events attended in white tie and ballgowns (though paying attention to what was going on onstage was optional)… I’d say we’re now in a middle ground: we have more respect for working performers and other audience members than the Elizabethans, and less “decorum” than the Victorians (unless you’re going to the opera, where a few venues still have dress code rules). And, as always with something like a middle ground, or a compromise, no one is happy, and everyone would like the norm to be pulled in one direction or the other.

Topics which I’ve heard people fight endlessly about include (and are not limited to):

  • Is it acceptable to eat at the theatre, as you might at home or the cinema? (The conversation which started me thinking about this post.)
  • Is it acceptable to simply wear casual clothes to the theatre, and not dress up even a little bit?
  • Is it acceptable to talk at the theatre?
  • Is it acceptable to use your phone (ie. read a text message, not take pictures/film of the performance, which – we’ve agreed – is illegal) at the theatre?
  • Is it acceptable to bring a small child to the theatre? What if that child makes noise?
  • Is it acceptable for disabled people to attend the theatre, if they are going to make noise/move out of their seat during the performance? Should this only happen at relaxed performances?

The general premise behind anyone asking these questions, and usually they’re someone watching someone else do one of these things and being irritated by it, is to what extent, when in a shared, public experience, like the theatre, you should be conscious of other people’s experience, and adapt your own behaviour for the so-called “common good”. The flip side is – how much is another’s comfort in traditions (by contrast with genuine problems) worth preventing people who might not have attended very much theatre, and had these rules drilled into them by well-meaning middle class families, from attending the theatre by criticising them for wearing the wrong clothes/behaving in the “wrong” way?

I think, in the case of most of these questions, the answer is “yes, of course it’s acceptable” (or “it should be acceptable, so do it until it becomes acceptable”), though perhaps some even more for some than others. If anyone is offended by your choice of clothing to the theatre, I give you full permission to ignore that opinion: the theatre is not an elite environment in which everyone must be dressed according to your neighbour’s idea of ‘propriety’. Wear whatever makes you comfortable, whether that’s white tie/a ballgown or jeans and trainers.

In terms of bringing children, I think it needs to be encouraged: theatre is a wonderful opportunity to share with other people and enjoy spectacle and thought, and the younger people are when they begin to enjoy it, the more likely they are to continue to throughout their lives (like reading). And – guess what – children are noisy and indecorous. That’s life, and theatre is about liveness. Bring the little children.

I hesitated about even including the question about disability, because I think the answer is so patently obvious that it is insulting to include it, but it is a question raised regularly, and I wanted to stand up and say that if someone thinks that disabled people shouldn’t attend the theatre, they should keep that thought to themselves, and get over it. If they think disabled people should only attend relaxed performances, which is basically the same thing – “please don’t make noise in my space ” – just attempted to be hidden, again, please, keep that thought to yourself until you’ve gotten over it. I’m sure your parents told you “if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it”, and “disabled people shouldn’t come to the theatre because they disrupt my enjoyment” is a supremely not-nice, awful thing to say.

Note: This is not to say that there isn’t huge value in relaxed performances, which allow people to, for instance hear fewer very loud noises, or see a performance with tempered flashing lights, if those are things which will facilitate their enjoyment. But anyone who suggests that relaxed performances are the only ones which should be attended by disabled people because of “disruption” needs to take a long hard look at themselves and think again.

To come back to the question about eating, and with it talking and texting, I think the issue here is making unnecessary noise/light, which can distract those around you (to those returning to children/disability and trying to claim that this is also distracting noise: maybe, but human beings are allowed to exist in the same space as you, so I’d call it necessary noise.) For me, the line is eating is fine (I won’t often do it, because snack food in theatres is horribly expensive) but maybe try for something other than sweets with crinkly wrappers; talking is okay, provided its a short whisper to your neighbour about what your watching, rather than a full-length, full volume conversation about what to buy for dinner afterwards; and phones aren’t okay – you’re glowing, and no one can look at the stage, because they’re looking at you instead.

Those are my thoughts, and for me, I’d say the first few (clothes and people making noise) are ones I wouldn’t consider negotiable in different circumstances (though I’m interested to hear what you think), while the last three I think are more dependent on circumstances (e.g. I’d have less of an issue with someone using a phone in a light, outdoor performance than a dark indoor theatre). What do you think? What is/isn’t acceptable theatre behaviour? Please let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear about it.

That’s all for this week, thank you as always for reading!

Emily xxx

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5 thoughts on “Eating at the theatre – obnoxious or pretentious?

  1. An interesting subject! I don’t think many people have expectations about dress at the theatre these days. It’s no different from going to the cinema, and the points about mobile phone use, eating and making noise during performances are exactly the same too, as far as the one’s fellow audience members are concerned. Only selfish or thoughtless people would do things which interfere with other people’s enjoyment or concentration on a performance. It is necessary to remind people of this simple principle of not interfering with others in many contexts, not just the theatre.

    The theatre or any other live performance has an obvious additional factor, when compared to the cinema, which is the potential for performers to be distracted (which will also impact adversely on the audience, who may have paid a lot of money to be there). For that reason children who are not yet able to exercise self-control should not attend performances in which they might distract the performers. Obviously it’s acceptable in performances where a degree of audience noise and disturbance is accepted, such as pantomimes, children’s theatre, or outdoor theatre.

    The question of self-control becomes more difficult, obviously, when it comes to adults who may find it difficult or impossible to sit quietly, perhaps due to a medical condition. Again, I think they should simply not attend, out of consideration to others. This is an unfashionable view, perhaps even harsh. But their rights do not trump other people’s rights, and their responsibilites are no less because of their disability. That’s the whole point about rights and responsibilities – we all have them!

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  2. This is a very interesting, thought provoking blog and I would need to ponder for a full response. My initial reaction, however, is to wonder how much thoughtless behaviour is caused by people not used to interacting with others so not realising how selfish & irritating they appear. In some ways maybe if going to the theatre was still special enough to dress up It might be special enough for better manners.
    As for children, why would you take a child to an inappropriate show in the first place? Of course they should go. How will the next generation fall in love with the Theatre if they are not taken there?
    Naturally people with disabilities should attend no question.

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  3. Thank you for this post, which I very much enjoyed! I would say yes to accessibility, with some caveats for parents of young children. They should exercise good judgment about which types of show a young child has the ability to sit through–and be ready and willing to leave if that child hits the limit, regardless of the cost of the tickets. Ticket cost is a big issue here. If people have paid hundreds of dollars and traveled a long way to see something, it’s deeply disappointing to have the show ruined. But I’m much more tolerant of children coming to shows, for the reasons you mention. And disabled people–of course!! Though I can’t help mentioning the time I went to a Michael Feinstein concert, and the man next to me had a hearing aid that continually made loud screeching noises, like a microphone that needs adjustment. He couldn’t help it, but it ruined the show for me.
    Clothing should not be an issue. What someone wears has no effect on other people’s ability to enjoy the show. Even the Metropolitan Opera tells attendees to wear whatever is comfortable.
    Eating, talking and phones are huge issues for me. It’s virtually impossible for me to give my full attention to a show when someone behind or beside me is making crunching noises, whispering, or fiddling with a phone. They have no legitimate need to do anything of these things during a show, and their behavior is highly distracting.
    One you didn’t mention is snoring! More than once, the person next to me (always male) has fallen asleep and begun to snore very loudly. I didn’t know whether to elbow him awake or not. Men also tend to take up more than their share of space by hogging the armrests and spreading their legs, as on the subway–LOL

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