September 2015 | Thinking Out Loud | Theater Etiquette

By Debra Danese

I once saw a bumper sticker that read, “Dance like no one’s watching, because everyone is on their phone—so no one is watching.” I thought, “How true.” As an avid theatergoer, I have frequently observed audience members who are more focused on their phones—which light up the darkened theater—than they are on the performance. However, it was while on a studio-sponsored outing that I realized how little consideration many of us give our fellow patrons.

During this performance by a professional company, I was seated among children and adults who were talking, texting, photographing, and videotaping. A seating dispute behind me resulted in a loud exchange of profanities; the students in front of me were in and out of their seats; children were crying. Phones rang, and message alerts chimed and dinged.

As a dance educator and former performer, I believe dance teachers have an obligation to teach theater etiquette to their students. I teach it for many reasons: because I want my dancers to take pride in the art they have chosen to study, and to behave in a manner that exemplifies this when attending a performance; because I want them to show respect for the performers onstage and courtesy to the patrons seated around them; and because I want them to understand what it means to immerse themselves in a theater experience. I also want them to realize that their behavior can directly affect the theatergoing experience of others.

I reinforce positive behaviors at and outside of the studio. I explain how to be a good audience member and have the students practice this when sharing dances in class. I post information about upcoming performances by our students, local companies, and visiting artists on a bulletin board in the waiting area, along with my rules for theater etiquette: 1) no talking; 2) no using electronic devices; 3) no eating or drinking; 4) restrooms should be used prior to the start of the show; 5) exit the theater only in an emergency or to settle a crying child.

I explain how to be a good audience member and have the students practice this when sharing dances in class.

I offer two annual outings to my dancers, to expose them to live theater and allow them to put into practice their understanding of theater etiquette. I ask my students’ families to adhere to my etiquette rules at our recitals.

Many venues allow patrons to purchase refreshments and bring them to their seats. However, having permission to do something doesn’t mean you should do it. Crinkling candy wrappers and ice clinking in cups are avoidable distractions. It’s not unreasonable to go two hours without a snack.

I expect my students to sit appropriately during a performance. One time, when my dancers saw a few people resting their feet on the seats in front of them, they sat down and did the same thing. When I told them to take their feet off the seatbacks they asked why they should, when other people had their feet up. This was the perfect chance to explain that we can lead by example rather than follow others’ bad behavior.

Another point I try to make with my dancers is that there is a time and place for everything. I don’t allow the use of cell phones in the studio or at the theater. At performances, I ask my dancers to discuss what they’ve seen during intermission. Hearing other people’s interpretation of what they saw often gives them a different perspective when watching the second act.

My goal is for my students to find a balance between the benefits of technology and the joy of being present and in the moment. This is a lesson for the studio, the theater, and life.

Debra Danese, RDE, is the director of Kdance Productions in West Chester, Pennsylvania. She teaches and choreographs across the United States and abroad.