But in the mid-19th century, when bourgeois theater rebranded as a civilizing tool and lighting technologies improved, new standards emerged. “Audiences were deliberately retrained in these newly imagined correct modes of behavior — sitting down being silent,” said Kirsty Sedgman, the author of “The Reasonable Audience: Theatre Etiquette, Behaviour Policing, and the Live Performance Experience.” This retraining had obviously classist roots and arguably racist ones, too.
Still, it remains the norm in most Western theaters. Speak up, dress down and, as online etiquette guides will tell you, you disrupt the experience for performers and other patrons. Don’t believe the guides? Just ask Patti LuPone.
I would draw a distinction between behaviors that engage with a work (snapping, clapping), those that don’t (Tweeting) and those that don’t or shouldn’t affect others (wearing flip-flops). Some conduct is obviously intolerable — charging a cellphone from an onstage outlet, masturbating (allegedly) during “Betrayal.” But we have created a culture that shames even benign participation — laughing, crying, taking a selfie as the lights go down. A compulsive rule follower, I’ve still been scolded hilariously often, sometimes for doing my job, sometimes for having a sore throat. (This was pre-Covid; coughing mattered less.)
The playwright Dominique Morisseau has included a program insert at her plays, reminding audiences: “This can be church for some of us, and testifying is allowed,” she writes.
Susan Bennett, the author of “Theater Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception,” has suggested that theaters look at theme parks, interactive museums, sporting events and even video games to imagine other forms of engagement. Closer to home, theaters can adopt some of the ways that immersive shows allow audience members more freedom of movement and behavior.
Here’s another thought: theater for kids. I’ve logged a lot of hours at children’s theater over the past six years, mostly as a civilian. During these plays, kids wriggle, they giggle, they chat and stamp and sing along. Performers manage. So do kids and parents. The show goes on.
When theater returns, we should demand more tolerance of other people’s pleasure. Sedgman playfully suggests that instead of offering a handful of “relaxed” performances, designed to accommodate audiences who aren’t necessarily neurotypical, theaters could instead make most performances relaxed and designate a few performances as “uptight.”