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March 14, 2008

Audience Etiquette


Should promoting audience etiquette be part of our jobs?

I'm thinking about this because of a Guardian UK blog post about theater etiquette.

I'm also thinking about it because in the town where I grew up (which I believe Terry Teachout calls something like a "second-tier" city, in no doubt much more elegant terms), the classical music critic for the daily paper wrote about audience etiquette. I'd say "often" or "a few times," but the truth is that just because I have strong memories of the few times doesn't mean it was, or wasn't, often.

That critic, whose work I remember reading in high school and perhaps college, was Scott Cantrell, now of the Dallas Morning News. (I emailed him to see if I was making this up; I'll update when I get a reply.)

UPDATE: Here is what Scott Cantrell told me (and I know I'm a bit old for this, but I just get so excited when I meet/email journos I read as a youth -- thanks, Scott!):

I don't think I ever wrote a stand-alone piece about etiquette. But I did sometimes complain -- and still do in the Morning News -- about audibly unnecessary coughing (and even foot-tapping). A couple of years ago I began a Dallas Symphony review describing how a woman's cell phone went off in the magically hushed orchestral epilogue of the Strauss Four Last Songs. And I gave the woman holy hell in person at intermission! "Ma'am," I said to her, "in the entire canon of Western music, you couldn't have picked a worse time for your cell phone to go off."

Yow! Lady, you got PWNED!

Although I tend to want a wider, more diverse in age and background audience at almost all the classical events and theater I attend, I also want people to know what's expected at those performances. (Not that elderly white folks can't be annoying; the snoring and coughing during several Eugene Symphony and Oregon Bach Festival events have driven me 'round the bend.)

I don't write reviews of concerts, but I often write previews. Should I be reminding people what generally accepted audience etiquette is?

You know:
• It's OK to text before the concert, but once that curtain speech starts, turn off your dang phone.
• Though this practice hasn't always held during classical concerts and might yet end, it's generally accepted that applause comes at the end of an entire work. Most orchestras and conductors would prefer that you not clap between movements. And you can (usually) tell how many movements there are by reading your program and paying attention to the longer pauses at the podium.
• At the theater or movies, please do not narrate the action to your companion or the rest of the theater. Feel free to watch movies on DVD if this seems too arduous.
• If you have a bad cold and cough, consider staying home. If you have a bit of a cough, bring cough drops, but unwrap them before the show begins.

Whoa, I'm getting a little bit too into the list. Somebody stop me before the Snob-O-Meter goes off the charts.

Is there a way to do this with lightness and humor? Does this fit the arts journalist's brief at all? What do you who write reviews do about these topics? (And related topics -- tiny kids at the movies or symphony; the Wagnerian conceit of audience response compared to, say, the 18th century idea; new symphonies that incorporate cell phones, etc.)

Posted by ssteffen at March 14, 2008 8:53 AM


Well, judging from the increasing length of curtain speeches in Milwaukee, some of which have developed into full-blown standup routines, I think most theaters and performing groups are doing a lot to promote good manners. More important, I think, for the future of the art forms is to recognize that the biggest barrier to theater attendance for many is the simple fear of leaping into a new cultural milieu. When I taught college theater courses, I used to spend a week getting students to reflect on the various trappings of the theater experience--implied dress codes, expected behaviors, the messages that lobby and theater architecture send. Habitues like us are probably not likely to notice these restrictions and assumptions. But it's good that we keep an eye to them and good that we also keep an eye to the "snob level" of our own conversations. If we really want to help the arts grow, we have to be sure that people of all sorts feel like they Belong in the most fundamental way.

Posted by: Paul Kosidowski at March 14, 2008 10:42 AM

Paul, I agree with you, and because in my art history graduate work we spent many a symposium hour talking about how to make museums more inviting and accessible (and about the architecture, implied codes, etc.), I do consider this for the theater as well. And especially for classical music performances--I've blogged about and spoken with our Symphony's PR person about, um, creating at least one concert a year that's a bit less about drinking the Classical Milieu Kool-Aid.

Not that I'm opposed to some dressing up, some lobby networking, some quiet during the performance, etc. I'm not. But I do think that there's a reason people enjoy attending summer outdoor concerts (something our symphony is working on for this year), and part of it has to do with more freedom. How the musicians and conductors feel about them, I don't know. I wonder why it matters if one is playing in black and white or in spaghetti strap shirt and flip-flops (does it matter, musicians?).

Re: Theaters and Meaningful Prosceniums (Proscenia?) etc.: I appreciate going backstage at our large concert hall, the Hult Center, and I really love the backstage tour at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I think more backstage tours where things are demystified (a bit) could be helpful, as can those audience-on-stage concerts with orchestras where people get to see what the heck is really going on. I've written about our stagehands and their process before big shows, and I've written about the backstage tours, but perhaps I could do more of the "this is how theater/music/art works" articles. Hm. Helping demystify codes/signs/signifiers can only be a good thing. Er, in the space available, of course.

Posted by: Suzi Steffen at March 14, 2008 2:46 PM

Unfortunate to say there is apparently a need to have better discipline among performers now too.

This weekend a performer took her cell phone on stage with her and stood next to a person with a live wireless mic which caused interference over the sound system as calls came in and the phone performed its various functions.

Then after intermission she neglected to turn her ringer off and the phone started ringing while she stood near me in the wings.

Posted by: Joe at March 17, 2008 2:42 PM