Obsession with ‘theatre etiquette’ could soon turn audiences away

In her final essay collection before her death, I Remember Nothing, Nora Ephron included a list entitled “What I won’t miss”. On it, she included “email” – twice. “I know I already said it, but I want to emphasise it,” she wrote. Because you can never get on top of emails, and you can never get away from them. Just ask Andrew Scott, who revealed this week that he had to stop doing the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Hamlet because a man was sitting in the audience, answering his emails. (Would love to know what it said – maybe “no worries if not to be!”).

Obviously, there is a time and a place for doing your emails, and – as Ephron knew – that often tends to be: all the time, forever. But one place not to do them, as I’m sure we can all agree, is while Andrew Scott (or anyone, really) is playing Hamlet. I saw the production at the Almeida in 2017 and it may have been the first Shakespeare production ever in which I wasn’t thinking about my emails. That’s how good it was. But Scott’s anecdote has served to feed something that’s currently almost as inescapable as email feels: the ever-hungry beast that is the great “theatre etiquette debate”.

There’s been a bit of a narrative in recent years that audiences – particularly those returning post-pandemic – are going a bit feral. There was the infamous incident at a performance of The Bodyguard in Manchester last year, with police called when two audience members wouldn’t stop singing. There was a “full-on fist fight” at a performance of Jersey Boys in Edinburgh. Clearly the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton feels it has got bad enough that they’ve needed to launch a poster campaign to address bad behaviour towards front-of-house staff. Anecdotally, there are endless stories of people on their phones, talking or eating loudly, followed by humourless TV and radio debates (one that ended with Alison Hammond writing a contrite notes app apology after she made light of people singing during shows) where we ask whether this is really OK. “People unselfconsciously enjoying themselves” and actual violence tend to end up on the same spectrum.

The examples that make headlines are extreme, but the conversation about “theatre etiquette” keeps going. Except: there’s a difference between “behaviour” and “etiquette”. Behaviour is the way in which you conduct yourself; etiquette is a code. In fact, the Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “the set of rules or customs that control accepted behaviour in particular social groups or situations”. We can all agree that certain behaviour – answering emails during Hamlet, brawling in the foyer, singing over a professional actor – isn’t really reasonable. But the “etiquette” conversation is beginning to feel like something different, like there’s a certain way to act during a performance and if you don’t obey the rules you don’t belong.

I really do understand why some people feel strongly that everyone should be silent in the theatre, that phones should be turned off (or put on silent at least), and that everyone should stay in their seats. There’s a special magic to the hush when the house lights go down. Not to sound pretentious (she says, while writing an article about theatre etiquette), but this is a centuries-old art form, where performers and audience enter into a sacred contract. Where, together, we share a transient experience and leave with just the memory. (Hence why illicit nude pictures taken of James Norton on stage in A Little Life were such a violation.) Plus, theatre is expensive (there’s outrage this week that seats for Sarah Jessica Parker’s West End debut in Plaza Suite are being sold for £300), so you’re basically robbing someone if you don’t shut up.

But, for me, increasingly, the obsession with “theatre etiquette” is reinforcing the feeling that this, more than any other, is an art form where there are rules. I have friends who give theatre a wide berth because, basically, they think it’s somewhere that someone in a suit will tut at them if they need to leave the auditorium, or where coughing is taken as a personal affront.

And recently I, too, find myself not liking the thought of being hemmed into the stalls with a stuffy crowd, where you might be shamed for saying or doing the wrong thing. I could be lounging around lost in a novel, stuffing my face in front of a big screen, or dancing in a crowd at a concert. (Or I could combine the last two, since Taylor Swift has encouraged cinemagoers watching her Eras tour to sing and dance throughout.) The late playwright Sarah Kane once wrote an essay comparing theatre to football, where she said that she often walked out of the theatre early “without fear of missing anything” but never with football – “because you never know when a miracle might occur”. It got me thinking, also, about the live communal experiences I want, and whether theatre needs to look to sport and realise that sometimes you need to let your tribes be a little unruly to inspire devotion.

How can theatre feel like not only a more welcoming place, but one where you can actually have fun? Not by becoming somewhere where it’s completely fine to do your emails (that’s no fun either), but by stressing that behaviour and etiquette are two different things. And that no one has a monopoly on what “etiquette” means. It shouldn’t be somewhere where you find yourself worrying more about the people around you – What if I need the loo? Will they hate me if I have to sneeze? – than your own response to what’s happening in front of you.

Just before Christmas, I watched Jamie Lloyd’s production of Sunset Boulevard. Without me spoiling what happens, the second act began with a scene so audacious, so thrilling, that the audience – literally – could not contain their shock and excitement. People gasped, cheered, broke out into spontaneous applause. Communal theatre experiences like that can stay with you forever – but so can the shame of a shush, the horrible feeling like you did something wrong.