Do We Really Need to Watch Shows in Silence?
Monday, December 17, 2018  •  
Mon Dec 17, 2018  •  
Broadway  •   15 comments Share This
"Maybe there's something to be gained from less rigorous enforcement of an unwritten code of conduct created by long dead white men."

A Latinx theatregoer makes the case for loosening up audience "rules"


Growing up in Honduras, I picked up my knowledge of theatre etiquette from the movies (thank you Pretty Woman and Citizen Kane). I learned that I shouldn't talk, that I should unwrap my candy before the show and that I should sit as still as possible and wait for my cues to applaud and, perhaps, laugh or cry (though never too loudly). For years, I believed I should shun anyone who showed any signs of life while attending a performance.

This presented a problem in one of the poorest countries in Latin America, where theatre isn't really "a thing" and most art forms are reserved for the very rich. I found myself in watchman mode at every show, surveying the audience for infractions. Once, my great aunt took me to the opera where I spent the entire performance frowning at the President, who alternated between dozing off and chitchatting with his entourage. I was so busy judging, I completely missed what Figaro was doing!

In the history of live performance dating back to Aeschylus, these audience "rules" are relatively new. They can be traced to the 19th century, when the advent of electricity allowed theatres to dim the house lights and the rise of realism led to the erection of the fourth wall. Theatres slowly became sanctuaries of quiet introspection.

But that wasn't always the case. In earlier eras, audiences sat under bright candlelight or sunny skies, reacting audibly (the groundlings were pretty rowdy). Latecomers, usually the wealthy arriving from a previous social engagement, entered mid-performance, creating a scene, so to speak.

Lately, I've been wondering if there's something to be gained from less rigorous enforcement of an unwritten code of conduct created by long dead white men. I've seen how exhilarating it can be to break those rules at New York City's Hispanic theatres, where I've begun to enjoy the vivacious and vocal way many of my fellow Latinx audience members embrace the shows.

Sitting at Repertorio Español, it's common to hear the sound of bags of chips being opened, or loud giggles followed by wine gulps. Sometimes, theatregoers even address the actors on stage as if we're at a soccer match. Warnings of, "Don't do that!" and wolf whistles became part of the fun of seeing a sex farce like Doña Flor y sus dos maridos about a woman and her two husbands. I mean, how can you not react to that?

Last year when I saw Neighbors at INTAR Theatre, a woman in the audience blurted out a suggestion to one of the characters, then blushed realizing what she had done. But the actor not only acknowledged her, he responded -- in character. It was a magical moment that illustrated the electric connection between actors and audiences at live performances. She spoke to the artist and the artist answered, fourth wall be damned.

While I certainly don't want theatregoing to devolve into a free-for-all, with everyone singing along, texting and heckling, I do think there should be more flexibility in terms of what's deemed "acceptable" behavior. After all, not all audiences are the same. Archaeologists have discovered podiums and other artifacts that suggest ancient performances in Latin America doubled as social gatherings, so perhaps we've inherited some ancestral practice from the Mayans or Aztecs. Or maybe we just like to make some noise to show our appreciation. Whatever the impetus, there should be room for a range of authentic responses at the theatre.


Jose Solís is a NY-based writer and editor who's been covering theatre and film professionally since 2003. He is a member of the Drama Desk. Follow him at @josesolismayen. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

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Diana Bloom said:
I prefer the status quo, respecting casts and audience members.
Posted on 12/19/2018 at 12:51 PM
Ryan T said:
I would be okay in a show by show basis, but don't be fooled... even with the rules as they are now, there are still people who will abuse this and I fear laxing things will make it more overall confusing/worse.
Posted on 12/20/2018 at 2:30 PM
Emma Goldman-Sherman said:
I agree - the theatre is altogether too full of itself in so many ways! While there are still many 4th walls and moments worthy of respect, it would be wonderful if people could feel more comfortable responding and interacting with what is happening on stage on a play by play basis with each play helping its audience to decipher how far they can go.
Posted on 12/21/2018 at 1:50 AM
Susan said:
I strongly disagree. I go to the theater to hear what is being said and to see what is happening-not to hear bags of chips being opened, beverages slurped, etc or to see people in the aisles coming and going. Nor do I want to see or hear people on their cell phones, or the ping of newly arrived emails. Those who need more activity and the opportunity to eat while out can go to sports events.
Posted on 12/22/2018 at 10:03 AM
Louis A said:
I disagree with relaxing the etiquette at shows. The casts and crews deserve our respect and attention. Tuesday I attended The Cher Show. In 32 years of attending live theater/dance/opera, I have never encounter a worse audience. People were shouting at the actors on stage, the three rows behind me were having conversations so loud to talk over the music, on their phones and ignoring the usher's.
Posted on 12/22/2018 at 10:13 AM
susanne traub said:
I prefer the play script to the audience script. There is a place and time for everything and generally bags crinkling and people singing along distracts me. On the other hand, there are specific venues where it is delightful and adds to the merriment. It all depends. what i do abhor is when audiences clap at the end of a solo before the music ends. That destroys what the composer intended.
Posted on 12/22/2018 at 10:24 AM
Bea Moreno said:
A very difficult situation. The audience, enthralled by what is occuring on the stage, will be silent awaiting the story to unfold. I would not want to hear any noises or "heckling". However, if there is a camaraderie between the actors & the audience, there is something very special when the 4th wall disappears. Truly the outcome depends on this.
Posted on 12/22/2018 at 11:00 AM
Jeannette said:
I disagree. It isn't OK for the patron in the seat next to me to shout "bravo" after a tender scene between two actors. He's disrupting the "suspension of disbelief" that allows the audience to become, not a fourth wall, but another character in the play. Theater is about truth and respect for the actors, playwright, and audience who are part of a grand experience.
Posted on 12/22/2018 at 11:33 AM
Matt said:
Great piece. I was raised near NYC & now teach theatre in Utah (where “rules” are utmost). The notion of alternative etiquettes is compelling. Might this be show specific? Perhaps there are times when “traditional” etiquette is best (no catcalls diring Laura’s monologue in MENAGERIE) and times when forms of active engagement are essential (fight scenes in MACBETH). Thanks for the thoughts!
Posted on 12/22/2018 at 12:38 PM
Clementine said:
I attend the theatre to see actors perform, not the audience.
Posted on 12/22/2018 at 1:00 PM
Lisa Molho said:
So now theater should become a free for all, with people eating, unwrapping candy and talking to the cast! You’re kidding right? And stop blaming old white men. That’s racist. When I go to the theater here, I want to get lost in the play, hear all the lines and not be distracted by someone who all of a sudden MUST unwrap a candy as soon as the curtain goes up! RUDE, RUDE, RUDE!
Posted on 12/22/2018 at 1:50 PM
Carole Cook said:
I love it the way it is. To me, live theatre is a religious experience.
Posted on 12/22/2018 at 4:13 PM
Diane said:
My partner was an actor and storyteller. The actor worked within the 20th C norm of 4th wall training. The storyteller practice encourages improvisational connection and interaction. I think the modes should be made clear from the beginning of any performance - when we all agree to allow magic to transform reality: time, place, and language. This is the cool thing about theatre, transformation.
Posted on 12/22/2018 at 4:29 PM
Joyce Weitz said:
I don’t want to hear someone opening a bag of chips. I prefer to hear the actors on stage. It’s fine the way it is. ‘If it ain’t broke ,don’t fix it.’
Posted on 12/22/2018 at 5:51 PM
Tony Tambasco said:
I 100% agree with this. The fourth wall is a relatively recent invention in the history of theatre, and all it does is serve those who would rather pretend to not be at a play. If theatre ain't broke, than why is it dying? If we treat our theatre spaces a little less like cathedrals and a little more like bazaars, more people will come to them.
Posted on 12/29/2018 at 1:53 PM
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