Theatre audiences have been misbehaving since the Covid pandemic, from starting fights to eating takeaways

Audiences had been getting more badly behaved over the past decade, but since the pandemic ‘it’s a leap beyond what we’ve seen in the past’, says expert Dr Kirsty Sedgman

Theatre audiences have been misbehaving since the Covid pandemic, from starting fights to eating takeaways

Industry professionals say audience behaviour has changed since the pandemic (Photo: andresr/Getty/E+)

By Connie Dimsdale

Theatres were hit hard by the pandemic but now live audiences are back and seemingly not on their best behaviour.

There have been reports of drunkenness, fights, and even eating takeaways in the auditorium.

Dr Kirsty Sedgman, a theatre lecturer at the University of Bristol, said there was a sense that audiences had been getting more badly behaved over the past decade, but since the pandemic “it’s a leap beyond what we’ve seen in the past”.

This behaviour includes “actual honest-to-God fist fights” as well as “overconsumption of alcohol” and general chitchat, she said.

One audience member was shocked to see a group chatting loudly among themselves and eating a takeaway during a performance.

“The entire row in front of me brought an entire takeaway in to eat during the show, big bags of metal trays of curry and chips and stuff,” said Nathan Head, from Delamare Forest, Cheshire.

“[They] kept talking as they passed it between them. Pongy too,” he added.

The 41-year-old actor went to see satirical cabaret act Fascinating Aïda perform at the Crewe Lyceum earlier this year.

He said a group of women was passing the food while shouting things like “Can I have a fork?” and “Give us more of them chips.”

Mr Head said: “It was funny at first because it was so unusual, unexpected and over-the-top, but it got annoying very fast.

“What was worse was one of them arrived late and walked through the row of seats shouting hello to all her friends, apologising for being late, making jokes like, ‘oh it would be me, the last in,’” he told i.

“They didn’t ruin the show as I learned to cut off from it, but it was just very bad manners.”

Although this was an unusual incident, Mr Head said he had noticed audience members talking more during shows since the pandemic.

“People have become more relaxed now in groups because they spent so long at home in pyjamas during lockdown,” he added. “Also people have a ‘live for now’ attitude because they missed out for so long.”

Jonathon Summers-Mileman, an audience development manager, suggested that some theatregoers might have “forgotten the unwritten rules about keeping quiet at certain points and moving around”.

However, he had not noticed “unruly behaviour” while working for House Theatre, a venue network and touring initiative based in south-east England.

Since the pandemic, House Theatre has started to provide a different style of theatre which enhances audience participation and offers outdoor performances.

“This is a chance to look at why we give off an intimidating atmosphere being in the theatre and how we can change that,” said Mr Summers-Mileman.

“Maybe audiences do want to talk and be involved,” he added.

The company tours relaxed performances for children, such as an outdoor production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which includes modern live music to encourage the audience to sing along.

Outdoor performances offer “more freedom” than being in a dark enclosed space, with greater opportunity for “interaction with your friends”, he said.

People complaining about bad audience behaviour is not new, but it has increased since the pandemic, said Dr Sedgman, an expert in audience behaviour who wrote the book The Reasonable Audience.

From surveying hundreds of guides to theatre etiquette she found that discussion of declining audience behaviour correlated with a post-2000s urge for theatres to widen participation.

“That’s led to a rise in productions like jukebox musicals and theatres selling shows as a fun day or night out to people who might have previously thought the theatre is not for them,” said Dr Sedgman.

“The rise in marketing is desperately trying to do a good thing to get more people into the theatre, but it’s potentially not setting them up for the kind of experience that the show itself is inviting,” she added.

Therefore, traditional theatregoers used to “reverent silence” may find themselves sitting with people who came for an “exuberant, sociable experience”, she said.

Dr Sedgman also suggested that the pandemic means we are now more used to monitoring what others are doing.

“The pandemic has perhaps got some people more used to calling each other out and engaging verbally with each other in ways that might previously have elicited a more British passive-aggressive tut,” she said.

Her analysis found that people on both sides of the debate felt “entitled” to their experience, using phrases such as: “I paid good money for these seats.”

She also suggested the pandemic has made us more used to watching entertainment in a more casual environment.

“We need those lines in theatre as in life, but we need to think carefully about where lines have historically been drawn, who drew them, and who they benefited and who’s lost out,” she told i.

However not all theatre companies have noticed declining behaviour at their shows.

Charlie Wood, Director of Underbelly – a live events producer and venue operator with roots at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – said audiences were “hungry” for live theatre after the pandemic.

“When people really appreciate the experience that they’ve been given, and it’s a really good quality and engaging, then people will behave well,” he told i.

However, he has noticed a trend of audiences using their phones more during performances. “That’s fine for some shows, but for quite a lot we aren’t happy for that to happen,” he added.

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