5 Things You Should Know About Theater Etiquette

The Minnesota Fringe Festival is fast approaching. The festival draws veteran audiences as well as first-timers, and it’s a great opportunity to see many different genres of performances in a short period of time. One thing they all have in common is an audience. I want to take a moment and talk about how we, as the audience, can help make the experience positive for both fans and performers.

An empty stage with lights overhead

The Southern Theater in Minneapolis during Animal Engine’s Darlings in 2017. Matilda Ruth

Of the dozens of performances I attend every year, more often than not, there is at least one person in the audience who has no idea how to behave. In fact, I was unable to review a show last year based solely on the distractions from several people in the audience—it would have been unfair to the performers and production since by the end of the show I still had no idea what the story was. It did, however, get me thinking about audience etiquette. Do audience members even know what is expected of them?

I did some research, including asking local theater companies and online forums about what they would like for audiences to know when attending their shows, and compiled the top five responses.

1. Silence Your Phone

This seems like it would be obvious, especially because most performances include a brief announcement prior to show start that requests audience members to do just this. But cell-phone interruptions still happen, and when they do, it never fails to be during a monologue or an intimate part of the show, disrupting the flow and mood. What makes it worse is when the recipient actually answers the phone and continues to have a conversation while seated.

2. Silence Yourself

Although laughing and applauding at appropriate times is encouraged, talking during a show is not. No matter how quiet you think you are, the actors on stage can see and hear you along with your neighbors. A quick whisper is forgivable and in most cases accepted, but save your critiques and debates for the ride home. And think about other distracting behavior, like opening refreshments, snoring, and intercourse (yes, really). Unwrap refreshments prior to show start. Talk to any children with you about what behavior should be expected and why it is important to respect the people who paid to see the show as well as those who put in the hard work to make the show happen. Respect age suggestions.

A crowd of people watching a performance

Every member of the audience, large or small, plays a part in making a performance a positive experience. Matilda Ruth

3. No Pictures Means No Pictures

Many people think taking a quick picture is no big deal as long as they do it without flash, and a good amount of those photos end up on social media. But the photos are often poor quality and/or unflattering to the performers or production, and more often than not, the photos are not shared with the theater companies or performers. Additionally, the material and presentation may be copyrighted. Requesting to take pictures with the actors after the show is a better alternative.

A person taking a photo

Refrain from taking photos during a show, regardless if you use flash or not. Matilda Ruth

4. Stay through the Curtain Call

Not only is it a huge distraction and annoyance for the rest of the audience to have the doors open during the show, but it’s disrespectful to the performers for theatergoers to try and “beat the traffic” by leaving 5 or 10 minutes early. Staying until the actors take their final bows—and giving an applause, regardless of whether you loved it or not—is the same as thanking the performers for entertaining you for the past hour or two.

On the other hand, this brings me to standing ovations. They are severely overdone and becoming the norm,which leads them to be meaningless. Standing ovations should be given to those performances of extraordinary acclaim.

5. Dress Appropriately

Formal apparel is usually not expected at the theater anymore, though many people think of it as a special event and dress accordingly. That said, opening night typically draws a little more formality. Of the companies I queried, most said that dressing comfortably and inoffensively is perfectly acceptable. Do not forget your sweater, though: many theaters are kept fairly cool.


During my research of what should be expected of audience members, I stumbled upon the most recent book written by the anonymous writer West End Producer, Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Going to the Theatre (But Were Too Sloshed to Ask, Dear). The 224-page book, in general, talks about the entire theater experience, from picking a show to enjoying the performance to exiting quickly. The author breaks down the different types of audiences and challenges the reader to determine which group they belong in. I do recommend it if you want to know more about how to make your theater experience better. It’s hilarious and informational.

The 10-day Minnesota Fringe Festival starts August 2, 2018. More information and how to obtain tickets can be found on the festival’s website.

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