Going to the theatre is not something most of us would consider a high-risk endeavor. Over the past year or so, however, reports of unruly behaviour and outright physical violence have garnered much attention in the press on both sides of the pond. Last week, in Manchester, it emerged that a fight had broken out during a performance of the musical The Bodyguard when two audience members refused to stop singing along with the actors.
During the big ballad ‘I Will Always Love You’, two people stood up and bellowed over lead actress Melody Thornton. When asked to stop by theatre staff, an altercation broke out and the pair were removed from the venue by security staff. The musical had to be cut short as the police were called. This story went viral and kicked off a conversation around theatre etiquette. Most of the coverage seemed to focus on whether or not it was OK for the audience to sing along during shows like The Bodyguard. While that is a crucial debate to have, it overlooked the rot at the heart of this issue: the consistent abuse of theatre staff amid a wave of audience entitlement in live venues.
Last December, actor Wendell Pierce was forced to directly confront an audience member who kept heckling him during a performance of Death of a Salesman. Witness reports noted that the woman in question, ‘seemingly inebriated’, was so disruptive and cruel that she had to be forcibly removed from the theatre by the police. In January of this year, a performance of Jersey Boys in Edinburgh came to a halt when a ‘full-on fist fight’ broke out in the balcony thanks to two rowdy audience members, one of whom reportedly threw punches at ushers. Playbill published a detailed piece on the wave of abuse directed towards theatre staff in the wake of post-COVID Broadway, which included incidents of being spat on and groped, having to clean up vomit and urine, and being pushed around by the audience. This article was later pulled from the website by Playbill CEO Philip Birsh, who claimed it was ‘salacious.’ Fortunately, you can still find copies of the piece online, and I heartily recommend you read it to understand how bad the problem is, especially when it came to the poor people who had to enforce COVID protocols.
To anyone who goes to the theatre or has left their house at all in the past 18 months, none of these stories feel especially salacious or inconceivable. It’s not just theatres either. I go to the cinema a lot and, post-lockdown restrictions, I struggle to think of a time when someone didn’t pull out their phones during a film. They weren’t hiding it either or even bothering to conceal the full brightness of their screens. It was an act as casual as taking a bite of popcorn, with an added brazenness to drive home their entitlement. Given the upsetting rise in costs for cinema and theatre tickets, one would think it’d be cheaper to simply stay at home and check your phone. And then there are the loud talkers, the drunk hecklers, and the smarmy contrarians who are oh-so-eager to let you know that they’re not enjoying what they’re seeing.
The conversations around so-called theatre etiquette quickly got messy. It was easy to deign the issue to be one of class, to smear the disruptors as plebs who aren’t at home in ‘classy’ spaces. Shock horror, this happens everywhere, such as a horrible moment last year when an audience member at a London opera decided to boo and heckle a 12-year-old performer. Some claimed that it was part of the fun to participate in the show, citing shows like The Rocky Horror Show where such things are an expected aspect of the production. As always, there was a sliver of ‘well, actually’ weirdos who thought that paying for their (increasingly expensive) ticket entitled them to act as they so pleased. After all, the actors are there to entertain us and we want to enjoy ourselves, right? Ugh…
It’d be easy to blame the pandemic for some of this. Certainly, I personally feel as though a hell of a lot of people have become more wilfully rude and inconsiderate in this post-lockdown age, best evidenced by how many people treated wearing a mask in public like some sort of affront on their civil liberties. It doesn’t help that a lot of this behaviour has now become seen as a political act, a moment of resistance against The Man rather than just another cycle of abuse directed towards minimum wage staff. Then again, it’s not as though respecting ushers, waiters, retail staff, etc, was ever a priority for too many people.
There is another major culprit at play: booze. Many theatres offer drinks packages with their tickets, to make the occasion ‘extra special.’ With shows like jukebox musicals advertised as a rollicking night out, akin to a hen party, audiences are encouraged to take a white wine or six into the auditorium with them. Broadway theatres offer souvenir cups that bartenders are encouraged to push onto customers. As the deleted Playbill piece noted, alcohol consumption at the theatre seems to have drastically increased post-COVID, and customers aren’t cut off when they clearly need to be because the theatres make so much money from drinks. That doesn’t even take into account the people who arrive tipsy or sneak in their own drinks. I’ve left theatres and seen rows of empty bottles by seats, lined up like it’s on display in a student flat’s window. Lowered inhibitions lead to very public messes.
Some theatres are making across-the-board changes to ensure audiences behave. Some shows put up signs in the lobby reminding people not to sing along, while such instructions are often now included in the pre-show announcements. The Ambassador Theatre Group, one of the biggest theatre owners in the UK, stated plans to change how certain shows are advertised, to drive home that they are not party free-for-alls. Now, Playbill is including inserts with pleas to audiences to respect staff, something that would probably be more effective if they hadn’t pulled that article. Real progress, however, won’t happen until theatres and producers are willing to lose a few quid in the name of protecting their staff and setting an example. That seems dishearteningly unlikely in many cases. With the CEO of Playbill demanding that journalists ‘recalibrate’ their work to downplay instances of physical and sexual assault against ushers and theatre staff, it’s clear where their priorities lie. Profits over people. Again.
The theatrical industry also needs to clean out its own house. Broadway did not deal with #MeToo or a wave of accusations of harassment and abuse with much foresight, making Hollywood of all places seem more compassionate by comparison. When one of the so-called cheerleaders of the industry dismisses reports of groping, grabbing, and screaming in staff’s faces as ‘clickbait’, it’s clear where their priorities lie. People treat the lowest paid workers like this because they know they’ll get away with it. They’ve been given plenty of evidence to back up that. That deleted Playbill piece noted that staff were often told to leave such bullies alone, and many offenders weren’t even asked to leave the performance. Audiences undoubtedly need to reassess their behaviour, but if the examples aren’t set at the top, nothing will change.
But seriously, don’t sing along at musicals or threaten to kill ushers, you losers.