Party town: why are theatre audiences getting so rowdy?

Theatre’s under the spotlight. Punters are in tiers. Recent months have seen an increase in audiences disrupting performances across the UK. Is it a moral panic... or just a stage we’re going through?

Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Order your copy here.

The conversation in the queue is both heated and slurred. You’re having some water – no, shut up – you’re having some water or you won’t remember anything,” says a twentysomething girl, raising a glass to her mate’s lips as she protests. Further ahead, a hen party is passing around goblets of a bright blue drink, a single flower languishing in each glass. Behind them, two women pose for a photograph, then tumble to the floor. You need a nice big cocktail do you?” one yells to the other, and they both laugh so hard they stop breathing for a second.

This is the scene outside the doors of the late-night Friday showing of Magic Mike Live at the Hippodrome in Leicester Square, the heart of London’s glittering” West End. When we get inside and I find my seat, an usher tells me to please put my glass of wine under it to avoid spillage. I don’t have a glass of wine.

Do people often spill wine?” I ask.

Yes,” he replies, a weariness in his eyes.

The lights go down on the packed-out room. Ladies, welcome to MAGIC MIKE LIVE!” booms the announcer, and the audience goes stripper-crowd wild. I am sitting next to a couple, a man and a woman in their early twenties. Looking around, it’s possible that this guy is the only straight man here. He does not move an inch throughout the next 90 minutes of half-naked gyrating by the unbelievably ripped men on stage, gripping his rum and coke like it’s trying to get away.

Magic Mike Live is a theatre sensation, one that includes lap dances for audience members, whether they’re in their seats or have been pulled up onto the stage. During a striptease section, one of the 13 performers asks a woman in the audience to pull his trousers off. As she does, then goes to swing them over her head, an usher confiscates them in one swift movement. When we’re told to get to our feet for a slow song, a girl two seats over falls down and spills her pornstar martini all over my legs. She stays down for a while. When she eventually climbs back into her seat, her friend begins giving her a lap dance.

It’s carefully orchestrated chaos, having the appearance of being out of control without actually being. Yes, everybody’s pissed, but waiters serve drinks at the bar throughout and nobody seems to be doing anybody else any harm. That is, until close to the end. In the row behind me, a member of a hen party begins to climb over her friends towards one of the dancers, who is grinding against someone in the group. She gropes at him and tries to pull down his boxers. He whips around and his affable mask drops. He tells her firmly: no. A boundary has been crossed, the magic broken.

You might expect such behaviour at Magic Mike. It’s a live version of a raunchy film franchise, a big, boozy night out for huns and hens alike. But it’s not the only place in theatreland currently battling with patrons rolling in the aisles for all the wrong reasons.

If there has been a significant rise in bad audience behaviour, who or what is at fault? Covid? Social media? Ticketmaster? Booze? Andrew Lloyd-Webber? (Alright, it’s not him, I just think he’s annoying)”

Recently, it seems like news stories about bad behaviour in the stalls have popped up almost weekly. In January, an usher was punched at Jersey Boys in Edinburgh for asking someone to stop singing along. A performance of Meat Loaf musical Bat Out of Hell at London’s Peacock Theatre in March was halted for several minutes when a fight broke out in the audience: one man was ejected after singing so loudly that people around him became enraged to the point of fisticuffs. Police were called to the Palace Theatre in Manchester a week later to intervene in an altercation between theatregoers at Whitney Houston musical The Bodyguard, again stemming from an out-of-tune screecher who wouldn’t shut up during I Will Always Love You.

Even actors are being violated. The much-anticipated stage adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s controversial, and hugely popular, book A Little Life had its own magic spoiled when, early in its run at the Richmond Theatre, before its West End transfer, a patron took pictures of a naked James Norton, then flogged them to the Daily Mail. (The photos ran in the paper but were taken off the website after a swift online outcry.)

What’s going on? If there has been a significant rise in bad audience behaviour, who or what is at fault? Covid? Social media? Ticketmaster? Booze? Andrew Lloyd-Webber? (Alright, it’s not him, I just think he’s annoying.) And whoever or whatever is to blame, are we right to be outraged?

To some degree, theatres have always been witness to anti-social behaviour. People drinking too much, arguing with each other, talking and heckling, even eating food too loudly. Actors and front-of-house staff I speak to recall incidents going back decades. The woman who was told there was no readmission so urinated in her seat. An actor being catcalled for wearing lingerie in a scene. People taking phone calls during the show. As far back as Ancient Rome, audiences have been prone to a little rowdiness.

That said, there does seem to have been a marked uptick in incidents of audiences disrupting theatre performances across the UK. Earlier this year, BECTU (the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union), one of the biggest theatre worker collectives, surveyed its members, asking them whether they had experienced more fights in the foyer and shockers in the stalls of late. Overwhelmingly, the answer was yes.

Reams of testimony came in: threats of physical violence, actual physical violence, sexual abuse, racial abuse. It’s often reported at musicals, as if the transcendent magic of, say, The Four Seasons’ canon inspires Jersey Boys fans to cut loose in the wrong ways. But it’s by no means limited to big-ticket West End shows. It’s happening everywhere,” says the legendary theatre critic Lyn Gardner. Last year, a man received a lifetime ban from the Royal Opera House for heckling a 12-year-old soloist.

It’s useful, then, to make some distinctions. There’s bad behaviour and then there’s bad behaviour. Singing along tunelessly isn’t in the same category as spitting at a theatre worker.

For many people at these shows, it might be their one big treat in several months and, therefore, other audience members ruining it in some way is going to rile tempers”

I think that there are two things going on and you have to be careful not to confuse the two,” says Claire Armitstead, associate editor of Culture at the Guardian. On the one hand, we have to be very clear that it’s absolutely not acceptable for members of staff to be manhandled. And on the other, if there is an encouragement of participatory behaviour [by the play’s producers], that’s very different.”

In terms of straight-up abusive behaviour, drinking is clearly a factor. But part of the alcohol problem is a budget problem. Money is tight for venues, with reductions in arts funding in full effect. National Theatre recently announced that it’s dropping its output by 20 per cent over the next four years due to a 20 per cent drop in audience numbers, combined with inflation and energy costs, as well as a £1 million annual cut in government funding. Selling drinks, then, is a good way to supplement revenue. But allowing people to buy whole bottles of wine to take into the auditorium inevitably has consequences, with endless, atmosphere-interrupting trips to the loo not even the half of it.

Theatre becoming so expensive to attend is also a major issue. The top tickets at a West End play now cost well upwards of £100, a rise of 21 per cent since the pandemic. For many people at these shows, it might be their one big treat in several months and, therefore, other audience members ruining it in some way is going to rile tempers. Certainly, those I speak to outside West End shows were concerned by the exorbitant cost of theatre-going.

Erin and Karen have come up from Maidstone to see the Back to the Future musical, wincing at the cost of £240 for a family of four. It’s so out of normal people’s price points,” Erin says. According to Caroline Heim, a professor at the School of Creative Practice at Queensland University of Technology who studies theatre audiences, high prices bring high expectations. It’s a contract that audiences go into, when they exchange that money,” she says. They feel they have a right to behave in whatever way they want, because they’ve paid for it.”

But are these explanations too simplistic? Theatre tickets have always been pricey, a special night out. What has changed in recent years is that some shows actively encourage forms of audience participation. Since the rise of big glitzy stage musicals like Cats in the 1980s and Mamma Mia! in the 1990s, audiences have become used to being more expressive: singing along, even dancing to songs they already know and love. The Rocky Horror Show, admittedly a unique audience experience, even created an entire script to let patrons be part of the performance.

But there’s a difference between doing the Time Warp and a show where you’re there to appreciate the lead actor singing famously complex, highwire vocals, such as in The Bodyguard. It’s possible that these sorts of shows are not seen by audiences as theatre” in the same way as an Ibsen revival might be, and so they think the norms of theatre behaviour do not apply.

Sometimes, discussions about audience behaviour can veer into classist territory, the implication being that people who are not traditional theatregoers’, i.e. working-class people, don’t know how to behave in these places that were once the preserve of the elites”

More recently, in order to get bums on seats, these kinds of shows have been marketed expressly as raucous nights out, putting taglines like the best party in town” on their posters. Kirsty Sedgman, a cultural studies scholar at Bristol University, says this has set up a disconnect between what people expect when they buy a ticket and what they experience when they go to the show.

I’ve spoken to quite a few audience members who say they were lured there thinking that they could listen to performers sing their favourite songs, [but also] sing along, have a dance and have fun. But when they got there, they were told by theatre staff or other audience members that that’s not appropriate. They were absolutely crushed to realise that.”

Hearing this, I thought of a quote I saw on a wall in the bar at Magic Mike Live, which read: If you’re not into fun with friends, laughing out loud, dressing up, letting loose, cute cocktails and hot guys, then it’s definitely not for you.” And it’s true that its audience doesn’t necessarily view the experience as theatre and, therefore, doesn’t think there are the same expectations of conduct.

Outside Magic Mike, I got talking to sisters Hannah and Alice, who were there because their mum – slightly to their surprise – had bought them tickets. They come down from Liverpool to see shows in London fairly regularly. But I wouldn’t describe this as theatre,” Alice said. It’s the West End does porn.’”

Another night, another Friday spectacular. I’m at the Dominion Theatre, home of Dirty Dancing, one of the most popular musicals in the West End, to see what audiences are up to at something less overtly night-out-on-the-piss than Magic Mike. The answer: considerably less in-seat lap dancing, to say the least. When the lead actor takes his shirt off, there are wolf whistles from the crowd and a male voice yells, put it back on!”, much to the audience’s amusement.

But even here there were some low-level incidents of audience members not quite knowing what they were allowed to do. Two people were told off by ushers for filming. Then, when the show’s most iconic dance moment comes, where in the movie Patrick Swayze lifts Jennifer Grey above his head, two girls get up and dance in jubilation, to the evident annoyance of the people sitting behind them.

Sometimes, discussions about audience behaviour can veer into classist territory, the implication being that people who are not traditional theatregoers”, i.e. working-class people, don’t know how to behave in these places that were once the preserve of the elites. We do so much to say theatre’s for everyone, and then we try and tell people how to behave. [That] is a really tricky line to navigate,” says Emma-Louise Merritt, sales and ticketing director at Sonia Friedman Productions, one of the biggest theatre producers in the world.

Merritt can speak personally to that. Her cleaner, a woman she went to school with in Bexleyheath, loves going to the theatre but was disappointed to have been kicked out of the auditorium when she went to see Thriller, the Michael Jackson musical. Her crime: singing along. She was incredulous,” says Merritt. But every single day these stories are coming up. And what’s really missing are the points of view of the people that are [being ejected]. They do not see anything wrong with singing along.” Because, after all, the essence of the jukebox musical is a party atmosphere”.

Someone tells someone to shush, someone pushes back and before you know it, the Chardonnay is flying”

Everyone I speak to points to the pandemic as a significant factor in changing the way people interact with each other in public. We became used to being in our own homes and behaving how we liked when we consumed cultural products. Lockdowns also made curtain-twitchers of us all, commenting on and being encouraged to police other people’s behaviour. Then, once we were out in the world again, we had to learn to navigate a world where notions of personal space had been irrevocably changed.

Several people tell me that problems most often arise when audience members are policing each other, not when ushers are intervening to enforce behaviour codes. Someone tells someone to shush, someone pushes back and before you know it, the Chardonnay is flying.

These sorts of larger societal factors in audience behaviour are the focus of Sedgman’s research.

These brawls are erupting in theatres,” she says. But at the same time, we’re seeing instances of conflict everywhere: in cafés and restaurants, on public transport, around what it means to be together. And I think what we’re seeing is competing ideas about what we want social life to be for.”

How, then, do we keep the drama on the stage, where it belongs? Kate Denby is executive director at Northern Stage in Newcastle. She sees their work as theatre makers as one that involves renegotiating what being in a public space can mean. There aren’t that many places where you get several hundred people into a room to have a shared experience,” she points out. In our digital lives, you don’t even spend any time standing in the queue at the bank.”

Northern Stage has just released a new set of guidelines for audience members, developed over the past year or so, which recognise that people express their enjoyment of work in different ways. One example: a few seats at the back of the auditorium are reserved as tweet seats”, for those who want to live-tweet their experience of a show without distracting other audience members or performers.

BECTU are trying to help staff, too, calling for additional help for ushers to tackle disagreements in the crowd. We need to make sure front-of-house staff in particular are paid, trained and equipped adequately,” says Noel McClean, the union’s national secretary. They’ve launched a Safer Theatres Charter and a campaign under the title Anything Doesn’t Go (a pun on the landmark Cole Porter musical Anything Goes, of course), which aims to tackle increasing and extreme anti-social behaviour from UK theatre audiences”.

A box office manager tells me that venues in the UK are starting to confiscate brought-in alcohol and refuse service to obviously drunk guests. But messaging around alcohol consumption could still be clearer. To that end ATG, the UK’s largest theatre operator, is working with producers to reduce the use of marketing copy that emphasises shows as parties”.

But we should also be questioning what we think of as acceptable” theatre behaviour. Respectful silence followed by polite applause is traditionally how UK audiences have responded to stage performances, but that’s not true elsewhere in Europe. The Germans have a huge history of arguing back and getting involved in what’s going on onstage in the theatre. They walk out in droves,” says Heim.

Our ideas about what is permissible at the theatre are, to a certain degree, based on tradition rather than logic. Part of what’s so annoying about someone making noise in the theatre is the tension that you, as a well-behaved audience member, feel because this is not allowed”. If it is expressly allowed, that tension dissipates. Musicals might do well to promote specifically singalong editions of their shows, Merritt suggests, to give audiences a choice between a rowdier participatory experience and one which expects silence during the show from the crowd.

Because if our approach is too draconian toward policing people’s behaviour, we risk

losing audience participation altogether – or, indeed, losing punters. Which, obviously, nobody wants. A vocal, engaged crowd can encourage the performers and contribute significantly, when it’s welcome, to the live, in-situ magic that we all go to the theatre for in the first place.

People talk about reverence, they talk about respect. I think respect is really important, but reverence has no place in the theatre,” says Lyn Gardner. I spend a lot of time looking around at shows and thinking, gosh, people have paid an awful lot for this sleep that they’re having!” Or, as her fellow journalist Claire Armitstead puts it: God help theatre if it’s just about middle-class people who can afford the tickets and then don’t particularly enjoy it.”

If we want theatre to be for everyone, we need to accept that audiences are going to respond in different ways. A successful theatrical experience shouldn’t just mean someone clapping cordially at the end of the latest Chekhov adaptation. For a couple of darkened hours it should take you out of yourself – or, better, take you somewhere new.

As I exit Dirty Dancing, I pass an audience member, wearing a green, faux fur-lined coat and high heels, having a fag. She’s elated. I’m going through a divorce, but after seeing that? I’m over it,” she says, beaming.

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