“Their manners are more gentle-kind than of our human generation you shall find”

Titanic
Titanic
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Well. It’s been quite a week for the theatre etiquette brigade. I’ve been meaning to write a post in this vein for some time (my original one from 2015 feels a little out-of-date now), so with everything that’s been rumbling around since Tuesday night, I thought now was the time.

In case you were unaware (unlikely, considering it’s now made it to the BBC news website) at Tuesday evening’s performance of Titanic in Nottingham, a pair of women in the front row decided they needed to watch the penalty shootout in England’s World Cup knockout game instead of what was going on in front of them. This is obviously incredibly rude & inconsiderate behaviour towards both company and fellow audience members, but some of the melodramatic responses to the incident almost convinced me to side with the two women! Honestly, comments like “it makes me sick” and “they should be banned for life” are so entirely devoid of perspective that I half expected someone to chime in suggesting we bring back the death penalty to deal with them… I understand for the actors in the show that their tweets came from a moment of heightened emotion & immense frustration, so you can see why they reacted the way they did – it’s the replies from other people that made me weary.

Of course there was the inevitable reappearance of the term “theatre etiquette”. And it’s now that I want to call for this phrase to be disowned by the theatre community. Whilst it isn’t actually appropriated by any particular demographic, it has the feel of something that’s come from an older middle/upper class patron, and can understandably be off-putting (or at the very least sound rather precious) to less regular theatregoers; I believe it’s a damaging term that could end up dissuading people from going to the theatre, as it doesn’t make it sound a very inclusive place to be.

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Really the problem is a considerable lack of manners and an increasing sense of entitlement in every aspect of life, which transcends wealth, class, culture, religion – at least in theory. You’ll particularly understand this if you live in London or another large city. On trains, your back becomes something to lean on, your hips an armrest – constant elbowing is the norm, as is not moving to let someone get in or out of a seat (meaning you must contort yourself and probably end up falling on fellow passengers). When you’re walking down the street, looking at your phone is more important than looking where you’re going, and on more than one occasion I’ve been pushed out of the way when, by rights, the other person should really have been walking or running on the other side of the pavement.

And this can all be translated into people’s behaviour at the theatre. Rather than be respectful of a direct request to not take photos at any point, many will argue about it to the death; some will stand expectantly at the end of the row, assuming that you’re psychic and know they need to get past you, some are content with being casually late, and others will sit on a cushion in the front row. Fellow groundlings at the Globe think nothing of constantly hitting you, or squeezing into a space that isn’t big enough for them which leaves you fighting to be able to breathe – or they gradually move forwards or backwards, boxing you in and preventing you from being able to see.

The sense of entitlement issue means that some think “I’ve paid a huge amount for this seat, so I should be able to do what I want”, not considering the other hundreds who’ve also paid a lot and shouldn’t have to put up with you talking, chomping, kicking, constantly checking your phone, or anything else they can think of. The fundamental lack of consideration in day-to-day life is quite staggering. I’m not perfect by any means, and won’t try to make myself out to be some sort of saint, but I do my utmost not to disrupt other people in any way (whether I’m in the theatre or elsewhere); I just wouldn’t be able to live with myself, even the tiniest thing like unscrewing the lid from a water bottle to have a drink makes me think someone will get irritated… Yes, I’m at that level of paranoia and overconscientiousness! But better that than a selfish bastard, eh?

It’s a tricky situation. To begin with you hope common decency will prevail, so there are just basic guidelines – but then when all consideration seems to have gone out of the window you have to resort to ever more strict lists of rules, which can then put people off as it sounds more regimented than a nice night out. Vicious circles abound. And I’m not sure how it can be circumvented. We don’t live in a Disney film, so ‘be kind’ memes will get you nowhere (I’m living proof that you can live in the real world and still have consideration for others); it may just be a case of hoping again that basic manners begin to be instilled across the board. And the greater consideration people start to show, the more tolerant we can be of slight indiscretions, because you’d know it’s not default behaviour. They might genuinely need to check their phone (for example, if they’re a carer and they’re trying to take a rare night off), and as long as they do that carefully & not in full view then that’s surely acceptable? You can’t say that someone in this kind of situation shouldn’t be there if this is their tiniest chance in weeks/months/years to try and enjoy themselves.

julius-caesar-bridge-theatre-production-photo-2018-centre-abraham-popoola-julius-caesar-at-the-bridge-theatre-photo-credit-manuel-harlan-hr
Julius Caesar
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

So what is my conclusion? Fuck knows. Maybe I just needed a rant at all the shit I put up with and don’t have the gumption to call out at the time. Because this stuff really does annoy me when I’m disturbed by it in the middle of a show – I often find myself wishing that there was a way of simulating a packed crowd, so you get the atmosphere but none of the distracting & unpredictable behaviour from other people. Or that I could just give up theatre, but I’m way too far gone for that…

Anyway, perspective on your outraged tweets might be one take-home message. And to everyone else: just think a little more about others, wherever you are. That’s all.

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