Students of behavioural economics have suggested that ’audience etiquette’ is a set of codified social behaviours, which acknowledge the cultural and economic hierarchy of patrons, producers, performers, and the mere paying-public, whilst reinforcing a respectful distance between those onstage and not.
Historically the social contract of ’audience etiquette’ as well as any more formal event-specific T&C’s, were more strictly observed by those attending live performances. Everyone knew their place, whether standing, stalls, circle, or a discrete meet n’greet with the star and ensemble in an exclusive salon.
However, these typically unspoken set of ‘rules’ have recently, but not for the first time, appear to have been contravened by indifferent, disrespectful, overzealous, or aggressive responses to the performers, premises, and/or event personnel and are widely judged to have conflicted with acceptable limits of audience behaviour.
Indeed, some audiences appear to have lost their place in the traditional scheme of things. Over enthusiastically out-performing those onstage, whilst consuming excessive amounts of promotional alcohol, aggressively ignoring appeals for calm, and on occasions fighting amongst themselves as well as with stewards. All taking place whilst also mobile-recording for subsequent ‘I was there!’ viral social media use to document their ill-behaviour.
And these disturbances have led to a great deal of angst, outrage and debate, and some concern over the wellbeing of performers and event staff.
At this year’s International Live Music Conference (https://ilmc.com/) John Drury (VP & General Manager, The OVO Arena, Wembley) during the ‘Venue’s Venue’ panel (2nd March 2023) shyly asked the assembly whether the post-pandemic UK experience of occasional, but increasingly unruly, drunk, physically and/or verbally abusive audiences, was a common experience elsewhere.
The feedback from various members of the EAA (https://www.europeanarenas.com/) and others present was that this must be a particularly local phenomenon and expressed a little bewilderment at the tales of unsocial behaviour.
Of the apparent breaking of ’audience etiquette’ in the UK by loud drunks, with abuse directed towards artists, especially the support acts, and members of the audience persistently talking through songs, seemingly more interested in recording the performance via mobile phone rather than directly experiencing it, and on occasions physically attacking event staff and security who had merely intervened to request calmer behaviour allowing others to enjoy the performance.
The question was asked, during the pandemic had (UK) audiences lost an understanding of how to behave?
And this concern regarding concert audiences chimed with the theatrical world.
In Elizabethan times ‘theatre pit’ audiences mingling with pickpockets and prostitutes, clapped, and booed whenever they felt like it, threw fruit, and relieved themselves where they stood.
Victorian music halls combined the alcohol-fuelled tavern with the vulgarity and bawdy humour of the ‘variety show’ a mixture of song, dance, comedy, and dramatic performance often utilising the ’double-entendre’ of sexual content via rhyming innuendo and cartoonish allusion.
Since then, ’theatre etiquette’ and high-culture arts have increasingly attempted to separate the impolite masses from more refined attendees i.e., those more appreciative of elitist content, form, and practise, with a supposedly greater appreciation of the history and art of performance. This tutored audience became increasingly passive, quietly engaged, lip-syncing at most, and typically observational-only.
Not participants in the spectacle. Or at least, not until the curtain call applause.
Not directly part of the actual event. But more usually observers of a performance, or recipients of an experience where social custom defined how and when to enjoy the pageant.
But because they paid for the privilege to be presented to, and then paid more to be separated from the hoi-polloi, regular attendees or devotees of the performing arts then considered themselves to be imbued with some form of superior perspective and critical appreciation.
The fiscal means and repeated interest in attending these staged events (if only for the commercial and/or political networking opportunities), then required that the artistic performances onstage be matched by a more sophisticated, enriched, and valuable experience for its audience with dress codes and expectations of enlightened behaviour.
No longer a mere member of the audience, these more valuable attendees were given a new marketing pronoun, as patron, subscriber, supporter, or donor, which confirmed their elevated status. This re-naming also imbued a refined veneer of critical and cultural appreciation upon the ‘lover of the arts’.
This economically privileged, upper-class of audience (‘older, whiter and wealthier’) and their supporters then issued various think-pieces, pamphlets, commentary, and periodically uttered moral panics about the right way to behave, the correct way to receive, interpret, respond and/or appreciate the performing artform.
‘Theatre etiquette’ therefore requires the moral tut-tutting over late-arrivals, or irritatingly loud sweet wrappers, coughing fits, or mid-performance toilet breaks (in buildings typically underserving the number of attendees, especially women). And woe betide those who talk alongside the onstage performance or murmur out loud their favourite passages from key scenes.
Mobile phone calls disrupting performances and/or capturing unlicenced photographs are deemed deeply antisocial, as well as a contravention of copyright law.
And now, and apparently all-too-often, audiences specifically for musical theatre are disrupting performances by singing louder than the onstage ensemble. And some are then fighting, with event security, concierge staff and box office personnel rather than heed calls for restraint.
Earlier this year there were numerous reports of theatre operators opting to tone-down promotional messaging and advertising for musicals, in an attempt to balance their profit margin with the safeguarding of performers, staff and attendees:
Nadia Khomami, ‘Worst party in town’: abusive audiences force UK musicals to tone down ads – https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2023/feb/14/no-party-uk-musical-ads-will-change-to-stop-bad-theatre-behaviour
Matthew Hemley, Aggressive audience behaviour forces musicals to tone down marketing – https://www.thestage.co.uk/news/aggressive-audience-behaviour-forces-musicals-to-tone-down-marketing
Part of the problem is that event producers and venue operators have long promoted F&B consumption (in order to subsidise event margins) via all-inclusive coach tour packages, group discounts, and ticket+interval drink promotions, which implicitly enables an alcohol-fuelled party atmosphere with participatory singing and dancing encouraged – albeit within ill-defined limits.
Jukebox musicals have long promoted a feel-good ‘singing and dancing in the aisles’ theatrical participation encouraging well-known songs to be sung along by the whole venue, with advertorial videos showing audiences standing up from their seats and singing, clapping, dancing and excitedly enjoying the moment.
Further, the performance programming and structure is orientated around a familiarity of the material with a concert-like focus on the grand finale, to bring the house to its feet in a loud, celebratory climax.
But disquiet at this increased level of audience disruption wasn’t just being experienced within one performing arts genre or region:
Nick Curtis, Sex, violence and singalongs: how London’s theatre crowds forgot how to behave – https://www.standard.co.uk/insider/london-theatres-bad-behaviour-audiences-worse-b1064018.html
Alice Saville, Trouble in the stalls: when audience drama upstages the show – https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2022/mar/05/trouble-in-the-stalls-audience-theatre-disruptive-behaviour-noisy
And there was worse, as reported (29th March 2023) by the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union (Bectu) ‘Brawls, vandalism, racial abuse: Bectu survey reveals extreme audience behaviour in UK theatres – https://bectu.org.uk/news/brawls-vandalism-racial-abuse-bectu-survey-reveals-extreme-audience-behaviour-in-uk-theatres
This survey revealed that ‘90 per cent of respondents reported having directly experienced or witnessed poor audience behaviour, and more than 70 per cent felt that the issue is worse post-pandemic.’
Further ‘Nearly half of respondents said they had thought about leaving the industry as a result.’
The Bectu report was shortly followed (8th April, 2023) by the disrupted and unfinished performance of ‘The Bodyguard’ at the Palace Theatre (‘The Bodyguard cut short in Manchester due to rowdy singalongs’ – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-65220527) which has led to a frothy debate amongst media celebs, cultural commentators and a concerned industry.
This was not just a disturbance of the performance, as a Palace Theatre front-of-house supervisor tweeted: “The police were not called because of a few patrons singing along, they were called because of the UNPRECEDENTED levels of VIOLENCE asking them to stop caused.”
Neither actors or zero-hours event staff are typically given the training or agency to serve as crowd control, and nor should we expect them to perform as such.
With yet more examples (10th April 2023) of abhorrent behaviour emerging (Rachael Healy, ‘We’ve had to stop people fighting and urinating in their seats’: the ugly new side of theatre audiences – https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2023/apr/10/bodyguard-police-fighting-urinating-seats-ugly-new-side-of-theatre-audiences), as Rainer Glaap (https://www.linkedin.com/in/rainerglaap/) exclaimed ‘What is going on in British theatres?’
What is it that has brought about this apparently notable change of behaviour?
What has led to a breakdown of the traditional barrier between the performers on stage and an increasingly disruptive audience?
Why do some audience members feel a greater ease to abuse performers, concierge staff or fellow spectators?
Is it as some have claimed a post-pandemic over exuberant breakdown in civility?
Or is it simply the latest manifestation of the ‘English disease’? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Football_hooliganism_in_the_United_Kingdom)
Is this the same audience whom in other circumstances loudly celebrate the success or failure of their sporting tribe (some with replica shirts off, shaved heads, tattoos and sunburnt skin exposed casually throwing café furniture against rivals whilst dodging water cannon) and who sometimes attempt to storm entrances at football stadia or concert venues without tickets?
A brutalised social class, disadvantaged economically by the austerity ideology, with a lower life-expectancy, and less access to historical levels of employment, education, health, and welfare. A marginalised audience who regretfully are all too used to deprivation, aggression, and racial slurs who dress differently, talk differently, pray differently, love differently, and appear to not follow the ‘traditional’ norms of behaviour.
An audience who may have non-mainstream idols and icons (whether semi-naked celebrities or sports stars product-placing via TikTok), and belief systems (seemingly embracing supposedly anti-establishment populist ideologues spouting xenophobic sovereignty), but all generally exhibiting ‘bad taste’.
This audience who infrequently attend live events whether concerts, opera, pantomime, or theatre, but when they do, they are paying ever-higher amounts for their entertainment. So that drives a sense of entitlement. That the experience has to mean more. It has to connect. It has to matter. It has to burn brighter.
So, they enjoy, on their (individual) terms.
Ok deep breath. Enough of the polemic.
I am however now tempted to insert Joel Goodman’s photograph of New Year’s Eve on Wells Street in Manchester (31st December 2015), as the ‘perfect image’ of a contemporary night out in the UK (https://joelgoodman.net/).
Or, to relate the apocryphal Anthony H. Wilson (Broadcaster & Cultural Catalyst) story where he claimed to have once asked Sid Vicious (not necessarily a good role-model) if he wrote for the man in the street.
Vicious replied, ‘I’ve met the man in the street and he’s a c*nt.’
But this is obviously a repellent and reactionary viewpoint.
With the modern-day deluge of social media-fuelled opinions, everyone seemingly has a right-to-say (shout), even if it’s ‘fake news’ or factually wrong. We’ve also become increasingly used to judging other people’s behaviour, and also belligerent in response – ‘you can’t tell me what to do / say / think / behave’.
But surely no-one goes to an event (concert, musical, play, recital etc.) with the intention of spoiling it for everyone else or can be excused simply because they don’t know all the various arcane rules of behaviour when attending events.
For many the rules of civility are pretty obvious. Some just don’t appear to care.
And this ill-behaviour isn’t limited to any social class, event, or location with an abusive heckler banned (for life) from the Royal Opera House for shaming a child-actor (https://www.theguardian.com/music/2022/nov/10/heckler-gets-life-ban-from-royal-opera-house-for-shouting-rubbish-at-child-actor).
But when drafting this, I wasn’t then expecting to read (18th June 2023) about the mobile phone thrown at Bebe Rexha by a 27-year old member of the audience at a Pier 17 concert in New York (https://www.nme.com/news/music/bebe-rexha-collapses-on-stage-after-being-struck-in-head-by-fans-phone-at-gig-3457928) requiring medical attention and stitches.
Or, of Ava Max assaulted (20th June 2023) by a man who rushed on stage during her concert in Los Angeles and slapped her face so hard it scratched the inside of her eye (https://news.sky.com/story/ava-max-slapped-in-face-and-scratched-in-the-eye-by-man-who-runs-on-stage-during-her-la-show-12907430).
Or, of country star Kelsea Ballerini hit in the eye (28th June 2023) by a thrown bracelet (https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/kelsea-ballerini-hit-in-eye-idaho-concert-b2366724.html) whilst onstage in Idaho.
Or, of the replica vagina sex toy (?!?) thrown at Lil Nas X (1st July 2023) whilst performing at Lollapalooza, Stockholm (https://www.billboard.com/music/rb-hip-hop/lil-nas-x-reaction-tossed-sex-toy-stage-lollapalooza-1235365815/).
And more recently (6th July 2023) Drake (https://deadline.com/2023/07/drake-is-latest-artist-hit-with-thrown-object-during-concert-wednesday-1235431516/) who had another phone thrown at him, hitting his wrist.
This recent rash of incidents caused Adele to exclaim at a recent ‘Weekends with Adele’ concert in Las Vegas “Have you noticed how people are like forgetting f***ing show etiquette in America, they’re just throwing s*** on stage Have you seen that? … “I f***ing dare you,” she continued “dare you to throw something at me.” (https://www.theguardian.com/music/2023/jul/05/adele-warns-fans-throwing-objects-at-musicians)
This disturbing trend of musicians being hit on stage by objects thrown from the audience continues with Harry Styles (8th July 2023), being the latest high-profile victim (https://variety.com/2023/music/global/harry-styles-object-thrown-audience-1235664818/).
And not for the first time. He was previously pelted with Skittles during a performance in Los Angeles last year, and then had chicken nuggets thrown at him during one of his fifteen dates at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
“The play was a great success, but the audience was a disaster” – George Bernard Shaw
In summary, if an audience wants to immerse in karaoke-style musicals, or shout ‘behind-you’ at pantomime villain’s or wave their lit mobile-phones whilst stood in a greenfield singing along with the latest pop star whilst also partly anaesthetised by alcohol or drugs, that is fine.
They are seeking community, enjoyment, excitement, and release through a common shared experience – the live performance, which inherently is also about risk and experiment.
However, performers, and event staff need to be safe.
And that requires a balance, a social contract negotiated between the organisers, the performers, and the audience, all of whom want to be able to survive and enjoy the show.
And if that’s too much to expect, then we really do have a problem.