IMAGINE: you are a renowned and award-winning actor who has worked hard for years on your trade.
You have appeared in numerous hit TV series and played prominent roles in films. In addition, you have performed with actors such as Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson and Benedict Cumberbatch.
One night, in the Almeida Theatre in London, you play Prince Hamlet, a role for which you are later nominated for prizes. You are in the middle of the famous and demanding soliloquy: “To be, or not to be, that is the question."
Then, you fall silent. You see a man in the audience typing (he was sending emails), not on a cellphone but on a laptop computer.
Andrew Scott discussed this experience in a podcast interview while promoting his latest film, All of Us Strangers. He said he refused to resume the soliloquy until the man closed his laptop.
“I paused, and the stage crew said, ‘Get on with it,' and I said, ‘There is no way.' I stopped for a hell of a long time.”
The Guardian writes that a woman beside the laptop user told him what was happening and he stopped. Scott's experience in 2017 is one of many recent instances of poor etiquette by British theatre audiences.
Last April, police were called to a Manchester performance of The Bodyguard musical after staff at the Palace Theatre who tried to silence an audience member singing at the top of their lungs were met with “unprecedented levels of violence".
In February 2022, a production of Into the Woods at Belfast's Lyric Theatre had to be stopped with an intermission after complaints that audience members were talking loudly and moving around in the auditorium.
One day in our own country, I saw a show by Shirley Bassey (yes, I know). The person next to me shouted the whole time she sang, “Shirley, we love you!"
It looked like she wanted to climb off the stage and strangle him. I suspect it was the night she slapped her assistant across the face in the foyer of the Mount Nelson hotel. Combining “Shirley, we love you" with gin and tonic can be dangerous.
Then there are the oom-and-tannie brigades who arrive at Afrikaans art festivals with eyes full of venom, ready to cause a moral rumpus. You already know what will happen; you can recognise them like the old security police.
At the first curse word, they jump up loudly and walk out like elephants; then, they slam the doors. I want to run after them and ask: “Tell me, have you ever been outside the cramped borders of this cramped country, or have you just spent your entire dull lives in the dusty streets of Oudtshoorn or Potchefstroom?"
With their tight little mouths that look like raisins, they can't distinguish between a swearing character and a real person who swears.
I spoke to local stage performers and actors about their experiences and advice on theatre etiquette. In alphabetical order:
I worked at the old Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal, where we often gave school tours. At that time, there was no stage; we had to act on the floor.
One day, we were doing a play. There were four actors, and then the woman who brought the tea walked through us while we played. She wanted to put the tea on the piano on the other side of the hall.
You're in character, concentrating, talking to the other actor — and while you're doing it, she walks by with a tray.
Then, there was another school where we performed. A magazine photographer also just walked on stage. Just as you turn around, she stands there and takes a picture of your face.
People also eat crisps, which make noise, or chocolate packets are loudly torn open. My philosophy about people who make noise is not to address them but to convince them with more passion for acting.
Furthermore, people sit in an auditorium where a serious theatre piece is being performed, with excellent lighting. Good lighting is an art that is carefully planned and worked out. Then you see people's cellphones light up, breaking the atmosphere.
When I performed in Kat and the Kings, a whole row of people in front were openly listening to a football game on the radio. They weren't interested in the piece at all.
I've seen people pass a packet of Simba chips down from the top of the auditorium. They open packets of NikNaks loudly. Would you go to the doctor and, in the consulting room, open a packet of chips and eat them?
I don't think there is theatre etiquette any more because the audiences, for the most part, no longer respect the theatre. They are not as educated (in etiquette) as in the old days because theatres must target broader and more commercial audiences to balance the books.
Years ago, I was sitting in the old Tricycle Theatre in London when a man looked at his cellphone and the screen lit up. The actor walked off the stage, grabbed the phone and pushed it into a prop, a vase full of water, before continuing with the show.
One night, I was in a theatre restaurant where there was a drunk woman; she was shouting and talking to me while I was performing and singing.
It threw me; she didn't want to stop. I then simply passed the microphone to her. The audience reprimanded her and she shut up.
The other thing is people who start filming me with their cellphones in the middle of a song. It gives me the creeps because you can't stop the song and ask them not to do it. You feel so powerless.
There should be mutual respect between the performer and the audience, and this will enhance the experience for both the audience and the performers. Nothing is more disturbing than cellphones going off in the theatre.
I was in a production, Huishou, about two white women (played by Nadia Valvekens and me) in a complicated marriage who wanted to adopt a black child. One night, a tannie was terribly upset and she stormed out.
But before she left she decided to shout at us first. “You are two lesbians! I'm done with this!” However, the audience was on our side and we kept going.
Also, there are people who bring drinks into a show and put them on stage. The stage is a sacred space; don't do that.
I was doing a one-woman show and had to sit on stage pre-set in silence and character before the play started. Then a woman walked up, oh my goodness, who I had known for a long time, and came to greet me.
I couldn't break out of character and was caught off guard. She took it very personally but I explained it to her afterwards.
Once, I sat in the audience for Nicola Hanekom's site-specific play Land of Skulls. The set had such a Karoo feel. I heard a cat miaow and thought it was part of the piece, along with the Karoo and so on.
The whole time, I waited and waited to see the cat. Towards the end of the play, I turned around and saw a woman sitting behind me with a handbag. In it were two little kittens.
I was in a small space in a production with Wessel Pretorius. While we were playing, a drunken woman sat in the audience, making noises, complaining, whining and rolling her eyes.
It caught us completely off guard. Worst of all, no one silenced her. She was bored and she wanted to make it clear.
My attention is easily distracted. Don't whisper during the show; we hear it. Even worse, don't open your candy loudly. Please!
Don't come to a show with hate in your heart. You can feel it; I put a lot of work and decades of experience into my shows. Show some respect.
Don't poison the whole table with your opinions if you don't enjoy the piece. Not loving it; go home!
I dream that in the near future, all cellphones will be automatically deactivated as soon as people enter a theatre.
I've had weirdos take a call during a gig. This is really the only time in my life that I think fondly of violence.
People have lost theatre etiquette. In earlier days, it might have been the rustle of paper or people arriving late; now, it's mobile phones. There is no respect, probably because there is no self-respect.
The audience members have never been on stage so they cannot imagine what it must be like for us. When I was still doing Dowwe Dolla back then, a cellphone would often start ringing.
Then, sometimes, I would call back the person on the other end in Porterville or Port Nolloth, improvise and make it part of my sketch. The problem is that it disturbs other people.
Some take out their phones and film an entire production like Liewe Heksie. Where does this habit come from?
There are copyrights and royalties; Liewe Heksie can't just break out of character and reprimand them. Dowwe Dolla can; it's stand-up comedy. But not Liewe Heksie from the stage.
Besides, even if your phone isn't ringing we can still see the lights on; it's distracting. Telephones aren't the only evil; some people talk to a character out loud.
People talk loudly to me because they think I'm on TV; people take phone calls while Tannie is talking; they are quickly put in their place.
I prefer to share good examples of theatre etiquette: arrive on time; treat your audience as the first and the last chance to prove that life is lovely.
I consider eating chips or popcorn while I work bad theatre etiquette. The worst theatre etiquette is people who walk past the theatre without buying a ticket!
The worst I experienced was during a performance in which I performed at the Fugard Theatre in Significant Other.
Another male actor and I had a kissing scene. Almost every night we could hear people whispering the words “sies" or “ew" (often loudly). One night, we saw a couple aggressively stand up in the front row and loudly storm out of the theatre.
It often happens when the lights go down and the play has to start; then, you see people still texting. The cellphone lights are visible from the stage.
One opening night, someone's cellphone went off nine times. I've heard someone say on his cellphone that he can't talk right now because he's in a theatre production and then walk out and continue the conversation.
Also, during a serious piece of theatre, people get up to visit the toilet. At one of my festivals, the stage was on the ground and the audience was raised. A man walked right onto the stage and walked through us, looking for a toilet.
It was just unbelievable. We were all frozen; we couldn't believe it. He showed no signs of remorse or shame.
He approached the stage manager to ask where the toilet was. I could not believe that he entered the sacred space of the stage like that.
There are many stories in South Africa about this type of behaviour. I don't know what's wrong with us.
I was in America for a month with the production Life & Times of Michael K. Not one cellphone went off during that entire period. What is wrong with us?
That is my big question. Why are we so barbaric?
Something strange happened: someone brought a tollie heater during the show one day. I don't know where they got the measurements but they were pretty accurate.
It's not funny to me when people shout from the floor as if it's a dialogue. Bad theatre etiquette is coming to a show and not enjoying it. If you come to hate-watch, stay away.
There are no under-18s, yet there are people who still come with this appalling outlook on life. Leave your luggage at the door.
If you want to feel safe, visit a church. Oh yes, only visit the church if you are straight; gay people are not going to feel safe there.
Wilhelm van der Walt
I am very strict on theatre etiquette and get angry with festival audiences, in particular. I performed at the KKNK in a piece about residence initiation.
Of course, there was student language; people swear. Then, a guy with his entire entourage got up and walked up to the stage on the floor and entered our play space just as manfully.
He then shouted loudly, “Weak! Extremely weak!” They stormed out and slammed the door so hard that I had never heard such a bang in my life.
Also at the KKNK, I acted in a two-man play opposite Tobie Cronjé. I had to stand pre-set on stage for a while.
As the audience walked in and sat down, just before the lights came on, someone shouted: “Hey, Ty. Did you forget your words?" Ty was my character in 7de Laan.
I wondered if I should start the show. I was on edge the whole time during the performance. I asked the director to keep that person there when the curtain came down.
Then, still in my costume, I went to him and said, “Sir, you shouted at me; you must never set foot in a theatre again."
Typically, the drunk Afrikaner man blamed his wife. My director then jumped in and confirmed that it was indeed him. The next moment, they were fighting and grabbing each other by the collar.
With every performance, I lose my head with people who talk during a show and, of course, when they look at their cellphones. And people who walk out.
I want to ask them if they would also do this in the church. Do they get up to go pee while the pastor is preaching? Because many of these festival-goers are religious, will they play with their cellphones during a sermon? Do they talk during the sermon?
The only reason you walk out of a theatre is if you're going to crap your pants.
♦ VWB ♦
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