Last weekend a production of An Enemy of the People that I had worked on closed. As it happened, I had volunteered to be the House Manager for the final performance (for those who are unfamiliar with what a House Manager is, I was in charge of the ushers and generally responsible for handling audience needs). It's usually not a hard job; the box office and bar are run by the space's staff and the ushers come from the Saints, so everyone pretty much knows what they're doing and I'm just there to make sure nothing goes wrong.
This performance in particular was a little more work-intensive than usual because we had sold out and had people on a waiting list before we'd even opened the house. Fortunately, I had plenty of help and we got almost everyone in who wanted to see the show. Some of the people who'd reserved tickets didn't show and we got those seats to people on the waiting list. Then we let most of the rest of the waiting list take seats in the aisles and in places with low visibility. In the end, we'd packed in as many people as we could without endangering actors and only had to delay the start of the show by 5 or 10 minutes to do it.
At this point, I was pretty much done until intermission. Or at least, that's usually how it works. Unfortunately, not long after the show had begun (and at least 15 minutes after the scheduled start time), two college students approached me. They had reserved tickets and wanted to be seated. Normally, this isn't a problem. We typically keep a few seats by the door set aside for late seating. But that went out the window with the full house.
I explained to them that I had no seats left in the theatre, that there was literally nowhere I could seat them without endangering the actors or violating the fire code. There was a pause, then one of the students said, "But we have tickets." We then had to explain to them that once the scheduled start time had passed, we released their tickets to be sold to people who were on the waiting list. It took some doing, but we did get them to understand that they weren't seeing the show.
Then five minutes later, it happened again. Fortunately, this pair got the point much quicker, but it still baffled me that college students seeing this show for a theatre class could think that it was okay to show up 15-20 minutes late for a performance. The more I thought about it, though, the more it made sense to me. While I've been attending plays for years, most people almost never see live theatre. For many, their only exposure to theatre is through student and amateur productions. While there aren't a large number of traditions and social mores that theatre-goers need to know, there are a few, and the general public isn't as likely to know them.
So, here are a few of the things that I think are important for people going to the theatre to know. I've tried to make this as generally useful as possible, but exceptions definitely happen. In roughly chronological order:
- Reserve Tickets - Not an ironclad rule, but a general good idea. Doing this will help make sure that you have a seat. This is also a good time to ask about parking/public transit, show length and other information that can help plan your night.
- General Admission vs Reserved Seating - One good reason to get your tickets in advance is if the theatre has reserved seating. Most larger theatres do and charge more for better seats and less for ones further back or on balconies. The opposite of this policy is general admission, commonly seen in smaller theatres and black-boxes, where your seating is not determined in advance. It's still a good idea to reserve tickets in advance, just remember that your seating depends on arriving on time.
- Previews - A preview performance is one that takes place before the official opening. It is the final part of the rehearsal process and is used to find any problems that may occur with an audience before putting it in front of critics. Previews can be very polished performances almost indistinguishable from performances in the actual run, or can still be in a rough state, with missing technical elements or starting and stopping. Beware previews that cost as much as a regular performance.
- Dress Code - This is a bit of a moving target. What is considered appropriate can depend on many factors. As a general rule, the bigger the theatre, the nicer the dress. Casual (but not sloppy) attire can be appropriate for very small theatres and black boxes; business casual is appropriate for most of the larger theatres. Matinee performances tend to be a little more casual (as do some previews), and special events - particularly opening night - tend to be a little more dressy. Follow your instincts, or, if completely lost, ask when you reserve your tickets. When in doubt, business casual is a pretty good bet.
- Arrive Early - As the story above proves, reserving a ticket does not mean that you can show up late and expect your seat to still be waiting for you. Different theatres have different policies on how late seating is handled: some will hold your tickets, some release tickets 5-15 minutes before the curtain; some will not seat latecomers until intermission or another significant interval, some have reserved late seating, some seat you late but then shoot you. How early should you show up? When you reserve your tickets, ask the box office what time the house opens (what time people can begin to take their seats). Aim to show up 5-10 minutes before that. Especially if seating is general admission.
- Theatre Time - No theatrical production has ever begun on time. Ever. Stories of such things happening are the theatrical equivalent of Bigfoot. The term "theatre time" alludes to the fact that a show scheduled to start at 8pm is infinitely more likely to start at 8:07 or 8:10. Most of the reason for this is that audience members who haven't read this list are arriving late, getting a drink, or any number of things that delay the start of the show. Do not be these people. Use this time instead to congratulate yourself on being a better theatre-goer than whoever's holding up the curtain this time. And then turn off your phone.
- Be a Good Audience - Actors refer to "good audiences" and "bad audiences." The principal difference is in how much the audience reacts to what is going on onstage. Laughs, gasps, and other vocal reactions give the actors something to play against and help to make the show better and more dynamic.
- Don't be a Bad Audience - The fact that the actors can hear you laughing, gasping, and clapping should make it obvious that they can hear you doing other things. Make sure your phone is off (even vibrate makes a lot of annoying noise), your candy is unwrapped, and your lip is zipped. Few things are more distracting to actors and other audience members than a ringing phone or someone talking to their neighbor.
- Intermission! - Intermission typically lasts 10-15 minutes, but can be subject to the same vagaries of theatre time as the initial curtain. Especially since half the audience is trying to get into the bathroom. Again, don't be that guy! Use the restroom, get a snack, have a smoke, then get right back to your seat. If the lights start flashing, that means the show's about to start and you really need to get back to your seat. And don't forget to turn your phone back off.