Theater Etiquette - The Dos and Don’t of Attending Live Performances - or how to enjoy a show withou

With the local stages dark and the theaters shuttered I thought that it would be a good time to write a piece on etiquette. No, not which fork or spoon to use in an arsenal of silver service or how to conduct one’s self at high tea but a treatise on how one should dress and act when attending a live performance. It is of vital importance to realize that this present situation is not permanent. Some day the theaters will reopen and the magic will happen once more. We simply need to be patient by staying calm and staying home. Let us begin.

Dressing For The Theatre

I blame myself along with the tribe of hippy gypsies who came of age in the 60s for the current lack of proper dress. Up to that time (in particular the 50s) people dressed up for even the most mundane of occasions. Women wore dresses in order to shop. Men wore suits to work unless their job required the use of overalls and even then the jumpsuits were kept clean and had snazzy company logos and name tags on the front and back. Back then everyone dressed in their Sunday best to attend the theater.

Then the “do your own thing, sex, drugs and rock and roll” explosion rocked the country and fashion went out the window. Tie-Dye, Bell Bottoms, Paisley, Fringed Leather, T-Shirts and Denim became the height of fashion. There was no longer a reason to dress up for any occasion including weddings, funerals or WalMart shopping.

In my experience as a theater reviewer I have witnessed people arriving at the theater to view a Broadway production, Ballet and even Opera dressed like they just came from a WWF bout, tractor pull or county fair. Blue Jeans, Bib Overalls, T-shirts, Leather Jackets (some with Mickey Mouse on the back) and Denim anything simply do not pass muster for theater fare.

There are certain rules of dress for a night out at the theater. For the men, dress pants with button down shirt and tie and a tasteful sport coat is de rigueur for the theater. Better yet a nice suit earns extra points. Women should also respect the proceedings by wearing either a dress or tasteful pants suit. I once saw a women attend Phantom of the Opera with curlers in her hair. Where was she going afterwards that was more important?


It is in this society of open child rearing that many parents consider their little Johnny and Joan to be short adults who are able to sit still without talking for two hours or more. They are delusional. Unless it is a show geared specifically for their child’s age group (and even that is a risk) one cannot expect their little darling to stay put for a show that they have little or no interest in.

This is especially true of shows that are geared for adults with adult content. Unless you want to spend the entire trip home explaining why the man on stage used potty language that should have resulted in his mouth being washed out with soap. Rest assured you will soon hear from their innocent little mouths “Why can’t I talk like that.” Worse yet will be their repeating what they heard at the theater at a family gathering.

Do us all a favor and leave the little Kinderbrat at home with a sitter. If it is an age appropriate show bring them to the matinee. The same goes for friends or relatives who lack the maturity to behave during performances.

Food and Drink

There was a time when food and drink were strictly prohibited from the seating area. Then the theaters realized what a cash cow mixed drinks, beer, soft pretzels and other snacks were and the effect they had on the bottom line. Thus rules were relaxed.

Now the serious theater goer has to contend with their neighbors noshing during the performance. I have witnessed people bringing in entire meals, potato chips and wrapped candy while drinking copious amounts of overpriced wine and drinks. Nothing in the world kills the mood of live dramatic theater then the sound of a beer bottle loudly rolling from the back top seats clear down to the stage. Shakespeare would have had you banned for life.


By definition, decorum is “the propriety and good taste in conduct and appearance.” or in other words how your mother taught you to act in public when you were growing up. Some of us heeded mom’s advice...others did not.

Once the house lights have dimmed it is time to shut your yap and watch the show, nothing more. You are not permitted to talk to your friend giving a blow by blow account of what will soon be happening on stage. Lurching and twisting around in your seat as if you are trying to adjust an ill fitting girdle or attempt Houdini’s straitjacket escape are also verboten.

With some shows being comedies the audience is encouraged to laugh out loud. There are limits to this exercise. If you find that your loud laughter is causing those around you to laugh at you instead of what is on stage it is time to take it down a notch.

If you are privileged with center of the row seats, arrive early in order to avoid having to climb over people to your seats. If there are people sitting between you and your final destination take care not to bump, step on or otherwise inconvenience your fellow theater goers. This is especially true in avoiding whacking people in the head with your duffle bag that is masquerading as a purse.

Telephones, Tablets and Computers (oh my)

At the beginning of every performance an admonition is spoken telling of the dangers of electronic devices for the actors, the effect the bright lights of the screen can have on surrounding patrons and the rule against taking photos or videos of the live performance. Yet at nearly every performance there is always some yahoo who insists on taking or receiving calls, filming the performance or reading their program by the light of their Samsung. It is times like these that I would love to demonstrate how to turn a simple telephone into a Japanese suppository. I have witnessed fights break out over the use of such devices. Don’t be a rube, turn it OFF!

Leaving the Theater

There really is no rush to exit the theater. Take your time, chat with your neighbors on the merits of the show, clean up any litter that you brought into the seating area and make sure that you are not leaving any personal articles behind. In short be civil.

For many, going to the theater can be an experience of a lifetime but it only takes one inconsiderate person to turn the situation into an unbearable encounter with the dregs of society. Just as the actors on stage, let us dress and act the part of theater goer thus enlarging the experience for everyone. Cheers!

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Who is Mark Horning?

Over the course of my life I have worked a variety of jobs including newspapers, retail camera sales and photography. Eight years ago I embarked on yet another career as writer. This included articles concerning sports and cultural events in Cleveland, Ohio as well reviews of the many theatrical productions around town. These days are spent photographing professional dance groups, theater companies and various galas and festivals as well as attending various stage performances and posting reviews about them.  

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