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Do We Really Need to Watch Shows in Silence?

Date: Dec 17, 2018


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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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