Manners & Misdemeanors

The New Rules of Theater Etiquette

The greatest drama in theater today might be a battle over how to behave. Is texting ever OK during a performance (even for Rihanna)?
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You would think that by 2019 we would have a consensus about what to do with our cell phones at the theater. Most of us are pretty good at setting them on silent as we take our seats, but resisting the urge to text or surreptitiously post to Instagram? That's not so easy for everyone.

Recently, during a performance of the new musical The Wrong Man, Joshua Henry, the Tony-nominated star of Carousel and Shuffle Along, grabbed a cell phone out of an audience member's hand and thew it under the bleachers. The move made major waves in the Broadway community, where phone use during shows has become the hot-button issue of the season.

The incident made "Page Six," and Hamilton's Javier Munoz tweeted “Simplest thing in the world folks: Turn off your cell phones before the show begins.”


And while tensions are running high at the moment, this isn't a new phenomenon. Patti LuPone famously stopped a performance of Gypsy in 2015 and had an audience member removed from taking her picture. In June, as Laura Benanti was finishing her lauded run in Lincoln Center Theatre's My Fair Lady, she stopped the show to address the incessant ringing of an audience member’s phone. “This is a theater,” she said. “Why isn't your phone off? Please turn it off.” She got a hearty round of applause.

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Of course, the question of who is texting can always trump the taboo of when they text. Recently, during a performance of the much buzzed about (and excellent) Slave Play, Rihanna—whose music is featured in the show—texted the playwright Jeremy O. Harris. He later brushed off any criticism of the digital interlude in a tweet that read, “When my idol texts me during a play I’ve written, I respond.”


It’s the topic du jour from producers' offices to the bar at Joe Allen: What is contemporary theater etiquette and who gets to decide?

When I was a kid, the night before my mom would take me into New York City to go to the theater, I would be so excited that I would sleep in my outfit. Usually, it was Bugle Boy khakis, a button-down shirt, and sometimes a tie. (Blazers don't sleep well.) Today, dressing up for the theater is the exception and not the rule, and while it’s no big deal to go casual for a Sunday matinee, there are certainly unwritten rules of theater etiquette that should be taken seriously. (I should know: Earlier this year, my 10-year-old niece Sadie wrote a list of them that went viral on Twitter.)

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I am, admittedly, more of a stickler than most. I recently found myself at Tootsie: The Comedy Musical for a second time. I love this show, but I only made it as far as the second number before the staff of the Marquis Theater asked me to leave. Why? The woman in Row B of the mezzanine crinkling her Twizzlers after inhaling a bag of pretzels during the overture was the last straw! After an usher declined to assist me, I walked to her row, reached across the man seated on the aisle, and grabbed the Twizzlers. I threw them into the aisle, and went back to my seat for about a minute, until I was asked to leave.

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All illustrations by Justin Teodoro
Photo by JUSTIN TEODORO.

I was embarrassed—but I can't promise I wouldn't do it again. I’ve since been back to Tootsie and had a wonderful time but was reminded by this unfortunate incident—some call it Twizzlergate—that there are rules to attending the theater that are important for everyone to follow. Doing so benefits the cast, the audience, and you if I happen to be sitting nearby.

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No talking, no singing, just watch the show.

Photo by JUSTIN TEODORO.

When you are sitting in a theater and the performance has begun, you don't talk. However, during some plays, people find the need to comment or whisper at full volume throughout. And in this age of the jukebox musical, audiences can't seem to refrain from the refrain—they sing every song. Despite the fact that Ain't Too Proud's writer Dominique Morisseau recently tweeted to tell me that singing along is "encouraged" at their show, there are several of us who don't agree. I want to hear Jessie Mueller sing Carole King's tunes, not Marge from Ronkonkoma. No matter how moved you are by the music, don’t hum or tap your feet, either. Three of Ain't Too Proud's Temptations were deservedly nominated for Tony Awards this season, so we should leave the performing to them.

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Turn your phone OFF.

Photo by JUSTIN TEODORO.

Not on vibrate, not on silent, not on airplane mode—off. In a recent article, the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones questioned whether a cell phone ringing during the current Broadway revival of Betrayal may have deepened a moment of acting for star Tom Hiddleston. I respect this rumination, but in all likelihood, a ringing phone breaks an actor's concentration and disrupts the audience's enjoyment of a show.

Madonna was crucified on social media in 2015 when she was on her phone during Hamilton's off-Broadway run. And now that show's creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has instituted a no-phone rule at his latest Broadway outing Freestyle Love Supreme. Hannah Gadsby did the same this past summer during her one-woman show Douglas. And Madonna, of all people, demanded all phones checked at the door at her recent Madame X residency at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It seems that if audiences aren’t willing to hit the off button themselves, theaters are going to start doing it for us.

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If you have to eat, do it quietly.

Photo by JUSTIN TEODORO.

Tootsie wasn't my first encounter with a Twizzler-loving audience member. In the spring of 2018 at the revival of Lobby Hero, a couple decided to accompany the entire first act with— you guessed it—a noisy bag of Twizzlers. After I unleashed some strong words at intermission, I asked the usher for assistance and she confiscated the snack and threatened the couple with expulsion. I’m not alone here. It’s said that producer Scott Rudin doesn't allow ice in beverages during his plays because it’s too noisy. And he’s right. If you absolutely have to eat, try doing it before the show starts or during intermission.

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Please, no photos.

Photo by JUSTIN TEODORO.

Broadway houses are intimate spaces and should be treated as such. Actors are often in both physically and emotionally vulnerable onstage situations, and respect must be paid. This summer, six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald chastised an audience member who took a photo of her during a nude scene in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de LuneHer tweet read, “To whoever it was in the audience that took a flash photo during our nude scene today: Not cool. Not cool at all.” She’s absolutely right—and that’s why waiting by the stage door for your favorite actor to exit is always going to be your best chance for a photo opp.

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Stay for the ovation—and definitely no naps.

Photo by JUSTIN TEODORO.

Leaving at intermission? I’m not in support of leaving after Act 1, but sometimes it must be done. If you’re in a seat where the actors can see you, avoid at all costs.

Bagging the bows? Some people rush out of a show before curtain calls in order to, what, save three minutes in foot traffic? It’s unacceptable. A curtain call is part of the show you bought a ticket to, and often more than just a bow but part of the performance. And most importantly, this is the time the audience thanks the performers for their time, their talent and their passion.

The Nederlander Nap? Last season, Manhattan Theatre Club presented a farce called The Nap. But this wasn't to condone those who fall asleep in the audience. Doing so is a bad idea, not only because it’s rude, but also because so many offenders tend to have nasal problems, and no one wants to hear a big 11 o’clock number accompanied by snoring from the seat nearby.

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*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com

*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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