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Ask Lyn: Is audience behaviour getting worse?

Ask Lyn: Is audience behaviour getting worse?

Ask Lyn: Is audience behaviour getting worse? cover photo on Stagedoor
Dear Lyn, Is audience behaviour getting worse in the theatre and why don’t the ushers do more about it? - Lally, Barnet

Dear Lally,

I really rather doubt it is, but then I am the woman who once sat in a fringe theatre many years ago while the couple behind me had sex. I was so engrossed in the play I didn’t notice until my companion pointed it out.

We appear to be in an era of moral panic about audience behaviour at the theatre. Latecomers, those who leave to go to the toilet halfway through and then return, those who talk, rustle their sweet packets and clink their ice in drinks (sweets and drinks that have been sold to them by the venue), those who do wear masks (and think everyone else should) and those who don’t wear masks (and think nobody should) have all become a source of friction within theatres, and it’s the poor ushers who often find themselves in the thick of this. They are ushers—charged with helping you find your seat and pointing you towards the loos—not a police force.

Of course, if you are performing on stage, you are doing a job, and deserve respect for your efforts. But I suspect that the current anxiety around audience behaviour is driven by two years of a pandemic in which many of us have been less in public space than usual and gathering together in theatre spaces still feels new, and each theatre trip feels as if there is more riding on it. We’ve paid (maybe quite a lot) for our tickets and want to have a really good time, but, of course, our way of having a good time may be different from someone else's perception of how you have a good time in the theatre.

I wonder whether the architecture of West End theatres, where the sheer size of the space creates a disconnect between what is happening on stage and in many parts of the auditorium, may be part of the problem.

Despite that long ago instance of nookie, from my observations, audience behaviour is seldom seen as an issue in more intimate fringe spaces, which are often less daunting and come wrapped with fewer rules and conventions. I am often particularly struck by the respect audiences show performers at theatre productions on the Edinburgh fringe, when they too have a drink in hand but the temporary nature of venues means that the normal conventions around audience behaviour feel more relaxed.

I suspect there has always been outlier audience behaviour in theatres and what we might characterise as disruptive shifts and changes as society changes. Like all moral panics, the current one around theatre audience behaviour will pass and I hope it does sooner than later so we can pay more attention to what is happening on the stage and focus less on what’s taking place in the auditorium.

Cover image of the interior of the Apollo Theatre in the West End showing how far away from the action on stage some audience members will be seated.

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Lyn Gardner

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