16 Dos and Don’ts of Theatre Etiquette

Featured image © Matthew Murphy

Since we’ve already discussed stagedooring and bootlegs, it’s now time to talk about what to do and what not to do in the theatre. One might think most of these are obvious, but in my eight years of actively going to the theatre, that hasn’t been the case. Follow these guidelines and you’ll be the perfect audience member both for the audience around you as well as the cast and crew.

DO: Arrive early, not just on time. 

Do you really want to be that person who blocks people’s views during the opening number (or any number in the show, for that matter)? Plan to arrive at minimum 15 minutes early so you can go to the bathroom, find your seat, turn your phone off, and look through the playbill.

DON’T: Take your shoes off or put your feet on the chairs (regardless of whether or not you’re wearing shoes). 

There are many places you should never be barefoot, and a theatre is at the top of that list. Not only is it rude, but it’s just plain nasty. 

That said, if you’re wearing uncomfortable heels and you want to slyly slide your shoes off during a performance, that’s understandable. However, putting your feet on the chairs at the theatre is an complete no-no (even if you’re wearing shoes). 

DO: Turn your phone all the way off, not just on silent.

When you hear the pre-show announcement telling you to turn your phone off, this doesn’t mean to flip it to silent or vibrate. Even when you turn it on silent, you can still receive emergency alerts that will disturb the audience and the cast members.

In fact, this happened just a few weeks ago when a flood warning went off on everyone’s phone in New York City. Turn your phone all the way off, or at least on airplane mode, to avoid situations like this:

DON’T: Unwrap snacks or eat crunchy food during a show. 

No one wants to hear crinkling wrappers or crunching during a performance. If you know you’re going to get hungry during a show, unwrap your candies beforehand or bring quiet food like a Nutri-Grain bar or sippable applesauce. Otherwise, try to eat before the show. 

DO: Pick up your playbills, souvenir cups, and trash after the show.

Let’s practice common courtesy and pick up after ourselves. In addition to being polite, this saves the ushers time cleaning up after a show. This is especially the case if it’s a matinee with an evening performance just a few hours later.

DON’T: Check your phone (for any length of time) during a show.

People often pay a lot of money to see shows. They don’t pay to read your Facebook timeline, watch you text, or check out your Instagram feed. If you desperately need to use your phone during a show, leave the theatre. If you’re bored and you want to use your phone, leave the theatre. If there’s an urgent emergency with a loved one, leave the theatre. Never ever look at your phone for any length of time while the show is in progress. 

In addition to this disturbing fellow audience members, this is incredibly rude to the performers, and it can be distracting. This isn’t a movie theatre. This is a theatre with live human beings performing just for you. They want to do a good job, something they can’t do if a moron in the audience needs to check their Facebook messages in the middle of act one because they’re bored.

If you know you’re the type of person to get antsy during long performances, bring some silent fidget toys with you. Or, once again, leave the theatre when you feel you need to use your phone.

DO: Cover your face when you sneeze or cough.

This is just standard etiquette in general, but even more so in a theatre. Not only does it soften the noise, but it also halts the spread of germs.

DON’T: Sing along or talk. 

I don’t care that you’re at Mamma Mia or Jersey Boys. Never sing along with the actors. No one in that theatre paid to hear you sing, and I can say that statement with 100% certainty. If you really want to sing along, sing along to the cast album in the car after the show. That’s what they’re made for.  

Further, if you need to have a conversation with the person sitting next to you, save it for intermission or after the show. It’s no fun not knowing what’s going on onstage because the couple next to you has to talk in great detail about an actress’s talent (or lack thereof).

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to people who can’t help talking or making noise because of various reasons.

DO: Respect understudies, standbys, and swings.

It’s my ultimate theatre pet peeve when people go to a show, look at the cast board or the slip inside of their playbill, and say with disgust, “Ugh, we’ve got an understudy on.”

Look. The stand-in for the performer is just as talented as the original, if not more. They wouldn’t be cast as the stand-in if they weren’t talented. Specifically, swings and understudies cover several roles in a show, and that’s hard. That takes a lot of work. Respect them. They’ll do a great job if you give them a chance.

Also, don’t go to a show just so you can see a singular performer. They’re liable to miss a show any day of any week. Go to a show because you want to see entertaining, meaningful theatre.

DON’T: Take pictures or videos, especially with flash. 

I know you want to preserve all your memories on your phone so you can look back on them and remember that moment years from now. In most circumstances, this is fine. However, it’s never acceptable to do that in a theatre. It’s incredibly distracting to the performers, and it’s also illegal. They take professional photographs and commercial footage for a reason!

DO: Check audience reviews before deciding to bring a young child to a show. 

In my experience, some kids younger than seven or eight haven’t dealt well with shows like Wicked, Anastasia, or even Frozen. Obviously, this isn’t the case with every kid, but use your brain. You know your child better than anyone else. Make a judgement call based on your child’s attention span, their level of interest in theatre overall, and what other people have said about the show. It’s no fun sitting next to a little kid who’s obviously bored, talking loudly, and bouncing around during a show you were excited about seeing. (This has happened to me several times, as you might be able to tell.)

Also, avoid bringing your kid to adult shows just because their favorite celebrity in it. I’ve read one too many horror stories about mothers bringing their Frozen-obsessed children to If/Then on Broadway just to see Idina Menzel. If/Then was never (and isn’t) a show meant for kids in the slightest.

If you have any suspicions that your kids may not enjoy a show, don’t take them. Wait a few years to introduce them to more mature musicals like Wicked, and in the meanwhile take them to shows like Aladdin and The Lion King. You (and the rest of the audience) will be better off for it.

DON’T: Consciously yell or make obnoxious noises during a performance.

It’s incredibly rude to whistle during a romantic scene or yell at the performers. Save that for applause breaks or moments when the rest of the audience is doing the same. Sometimes it’s cute, but most of the time it’s not.

DO: Wait to leave the theatre until the cast leaves the stage or the curtain goes up after curtain call.

I mentioned this in my previous blog about stagedooring etiquette, but it bears repeating. Whether you want to get to the stage door early or beat the parking lot rush, stay in the theatre until curtain call is over. This also goes for if you want to leave a performance at intermission or before the show’s over. Even if you didn’t like the show, this is the best way to show respect to the hardworking cast and crew, as well as the audience around you.

DON’T: Flaunt your political leanings during the curtain call.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat, Republican, or any other political party that exists in the world: You cannot demonstrate your politics during a time that’s meant to show appreciation for the two-hour performance you just saw. It takes away from the hardworking actors and crew who just left their all on the stage for the audience.

This doesn’t happen often, but this one time was one too many:

DO: Dress like you’re going somewhere you care about.

You don’t need to don a fancy suit or a cocktail dress when you’re going to a performance (though you can, if you really want to). That said, dress respectfully. It’s okay to wear a t-shirt or tank top and shorts, but make sure they’re appropriate. No crude expressions on shirts or jean shorts with more designer rips than denim.

Personally, I either wear a basic dress or a nicer shirt paired with jeans and nice-ish shoes (mostly the latter).

DON’T: Go into the show knowing nothing about it. 

Do your research beforehand! Look at how many songs there are, if there even are songs, the run-time, whether there’s an intermission, and the basic plot. Not only will this reduce your stress level during the performance, but it’ll make your experience more enjoyable if you know what’s going on. 

Is there anything I missed? Do you have any theatre horror stories? Let me know in the comments!

5 thoughts on “16 Dos and Don’ts of Theatre Etiquette

  1. Well:

    In 2017, during my latest production of Les Mis, a phone rang, and I did not like that. That was during a touring production. Seriously.

    In 2017, as well, during Rent: a couple next door, to my mom, dad, and I were talking the entire time- they were whispering: but I could still hear them. I waited five years to see the stage production of Rent, and that happened. I was trying to ignore that- I did pay a lot more attention to the stage- but I had to zone out that couple.

    Even during a college production of Music Man- people around us were singing along quietly- seriously people.

    I do follow the theatre rules:

    1. I dress nicely
    2. I get there early
    3. I do respect the understudies, standbys, and swings: have had them have 2014-now
    4. I do turn my ringer on silent- turns out it needs to more than that
    5. I don’t talk during the production: during intermission, before the opening, and at the end


  2. I have mixed feelings about the final point. If you have other commitments or things that might be potentially triggering, definitely put research into the show before you go. But sometimes part of the fun is just going into a show blind. I love seeing new shows that I know minimal about before I go in but I’m just a big theatre nerd in general.

    And also yes, yes, yes to the point about understudies/stand-bys/swings. They work so hard and absolutely don’t get enough love. I got to see Heidi Hansen’s understudy when we saw DEH on tour and she was wonderful! It makes the show even more special and I wish people were more excited about seeing a unique performance.


  3. Anonymous
    February 27, 2021 • 6:47 pm
    this site was very help full


    Reply ↓

    February 27, 2021 • 6:49 pm
    yes it was indeed


    Reply ↓
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