Teach Theatre ‘Etiquette’ to Youngster’s? No way!

Shocked and horrified. That was my reaction to Susan Elkin’s recent article on The Stage, advocating strict etiquette that children should “sit quietly and listen/watch”. Whilst this call for etiquette lessons bothers me in the extreme I first feel obliged to respond to such sweeping and patronising generalisations about said “older students”. Why do we feel the need to criminalise all young people? More and more I hear the‘t-word’ being tossed about as some grave insult or even disease as our society pulls stereotypes from the air and superimposes them on a whole generation. And no, I’m not talking about some emerging curse-word, I’m talking about ‘teenagers’. Normal people who deserve to be treated as such. If it is so necessary to be giving theatre etiquette lessons to children/teenagers then surely we should be doing the same for adults.

In fact, I’ve found children are often more receptive, engaged, and responsive to productions which ‘adults’ might sneer and laugh at. There’s no need for this silly criminalisation, there’s diversity in teenagers as in any demographic. Of course you’ll find raucous, rowdy trouble makers but you’ll also find bright, innovative and fascinating people. You’ll find mischievous, Machiavellian toddlers, and kind generous toddlers just as you’ll find lovely and unpleasant 60 year olds. My fellow 16 year olds are launching theatre companies, directing short films and being generally decent folk. Rather than spending our time bemoaning the perceived lack of cultural etiquette within young people, I advocate that instead we try to bring more young people to the theatre which is far more constructive, culturally enriching and will secure the future of theatre for the next generation. The looks of irritation, disgust and disdain I’ve received when attending performances with friends or when reviewing for The Public Reviews is sickening.

Right, that part of the rant over. You’ll notice I get a bit heated when defending my generation but back to theatre! As I seem to be disagreeing with everything Elkin has to say, it seems only natural that I would disagree with her assertion that etiquette of sitting still and quietly needs to be taught. For me the beauty of theatre is that it’s live performances and most, especially Shakespeare, are interactive at some level – we should not try to quash that with false pretensions of social superiority by acting ‘sophisticated’ and adhering to outdated conventions. An actor friend of mine said to me that it’s pretty hard to interact with an audience member if they’ve been threatened with being hung drawn and quartered if they react. In fact many of the actors I’ve spoken to place great weight on an audience’s response to assess the success of their performances – how can they continue to progress without being judged and always met by a stony silence? I believe much can be learnt as a performer trying to engage a younger audience. Not too long ago at thirteen years old I remember being utterly spellbound by the magic of the RSC’s production of King Lear and only a few weeks ago myself and several friends were entranced by the kids production of The Pardoner’s Tale at The Unicorn Theatre. This article only reinforces the need for more projects like the RSC First Encounters to give people access to theatre who will have never seen a performance before. I can testify that Shakespeare is often killed in schools (by no fault of my teachers) and we should trying to be giving these young people an experience that will get them engaged not making them run a mile away. I believe that the worst way to develop theatre and increase its access (something we all want surely?) is to seal it off with fancy conventions, archaic etiquette and a snobbishness that will drive people away in the masses.

Let’s not shroud theatre in unnecessary, rigid structure. Let’s bring theatre back to its heart. Let’s remember what we came for. The performance.

Over and out,

The Madman

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7 Comments

  1. OF COURSE we want young people to engage with theatre. And nothing I wrote said or even suggested otherwise. But we surely don’t want them deliberately scuppering most of a Q/A session with actors and the excellent activities offered spoiled for most by a few? And, incidentally, I am the very last person to stereotype young people. And who mentioned ‘strict etiquette’? Not I. If you’re still feeling shocked and horrified by anything you inferred from what I wrote then I think perhaps you need to get out a bit more.

    • Hi Susan,
      Speedy reply! It’s not that you’re actively discouraging young people from experiencing theatre but as a young person in a society where culture is becoming increasingly liberal I can testify that having traditional convention can discourage many young people. Although you may not see it as such, by just making people sit silently and still it puts theatre in ‘old’, ‘posh’ and thereby unwanted territory for many young people especially as most are used to sports or pantomime as live performance experience where active, vocal participation is often welcomed. Whilst you may not have intended to stereotype young people, for me it came across as such, most obviously from the title ‘Teach Youngster’s Theatre Etiquette’ furthered by your article which implies that all children need to be taught ‘correct’ etiquette. Perhaps there is a generational divide and our views of how theatre is to be consumed simply differs? Finally, I would be interested to hear how ‘getting out more’ (presumably to theatre?) would change my personal opinions?
      Best,
      Chris

  2. To be honest, I think the whole concept of a distant ethereal environment as a stage space is wrong and as totally detached from the greek ideal as possible. Theatre (and Brecht was right here) should provide a forum. The greeks watched in broad daylight outside, totally aware of the noisy people around them, and thus to them theatre was not so detached from the everyday norm. When we go to the end-on auditoriums of the west end, the house lights dim and we let ourselves passively adopt the illusion for a couple hours, the intellectual dialogue of the writer and artistic directors washing over us in gentle and occasionally not-so-gentle waves. I think the theatre we should pursue as a culture should be one where etiquette is not even asked as a question, since the theatre should be so obvious to an audience as to not require a silent tacit agreement between players and observers. A theatre that encourages both audience and actor to openly challenge those who interrupt – one where we can kick the person rattling maltesers in the back of their seat without shame, and where Helen Mirren can walk out onto the street and shout and noisy pedestrians – is one that we should pursue, because asking 17 year olds to shut up misses the point completely.

  3. Well perhaps my ‘problem’ is very basic. I want to HEAR what actors say. That’s what I go to the theatre for. It’s what the word ‘audience’ means. A generational difference maybe. I’ve never understood why people pay huge sums to go to pop concerts and then make so much din when they get there that they can’t hear the performance they’ve paid for either!

    • It is of course important to hear actors, but surely that is their job not the audiences? I think we both have differing aims when we go to the theatre. I certainly go for more than just to listen – I go to be engaged, to be challenged, and fundamentally to be entertained. I think we also have to nuance this discussion, as it is essential to recognise that there are multifarious productions, each with varying levels of interaction and we should respond accordingly. However one individual’s personal response should not be imposed upon another. Re pop concerts – I can’t say I have much experience with them but I can comfortably say that people go for the atmosphere and overall experience including visual spectacle alongside hearing the music. Not quite the classical recital!

      Chris

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