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Broadway Etiquette: 8 Things Every Theatergoer Should Know

Category Broadway

|by Jessica Branch |

Did you know that Broadway theaters have age requirements? Or that your seat assignment can help determine when you should arrive? Here are the rules everyone should follow

Whether you choose a star-spangled musical, an edge-of-your-seat drama, or a timeless classic that you love more every time you see it, there’s no place like the Great White Way. But Broadway has its own unique set of rules and regulations — and other theatergoers can be unforgiving if you disrupt their enjoyment of the show. And yes, following these guidelines can also help you enjoy a show more. Fortunately, the rules are easy to master. Here’s how to enjoy your tickets to their fullest, while making sure your fellow audience members do, too.

Guide to Broadway Etiquette (Illustration: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

Guide to Broadway Etiquette (Illustration: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

Consider Bringing Your Kids — Very Carefully
A child’s first Broadway show is a magical experience — if he or she is ready for it. So as a parent, the first thing you should know is that most Broadway theaters don’t allow children under the age of four. Period. (And even many Disney productions recommend that kids be at least six before you bring them to the theater.) But after that it’s a judgment call, says Raven Snook, contributing theater writer for Time Out New York and editor of — and mother of a nine-year-old who frequently accompanies her to the theater. “It depends on the individual child, the parents, and the show. Many five-year-olds will do well at The Lion King, but probably not Kinky Boots.” As you’re thinking it through, consider: Is your child able to sit still for more than an hour without getting too antsy to stay in his seat? And ask yourself, too, whether you’re OK with not only explaining how to behave to your child, but enforcing those rules — and maybe having to take a time out in the lobby with your kid if he can’t take it. Use your common sense and put some thought into what shows might be kid-friendly. Dialogue-heavy dramas that start at 8pm are not. A matinee of a musical based on an animated film would be a much safer bet. But even musicals that sound G-rated can get a little racy, so do your research, says Snook. “I heard about a guy who brought his kids to Avenue Q because he heard it was a puppet show.”

Dress Appropriately
Relax, you can save the diamonds and furs for the opera. And while some people do dress up a bit for an opening night, even then there’s no requirement that you don a ball gown or a tux. That said, you do want to look respectable. Think business casual — “no shoes, no shirt, no show,” says Snook. And you’re better off wearing something a little more substantial than cutoffs and sandals anyway. Broadway theaters tend to jack up the A/C, so by intermission you’ll be glad to be a little more covered up (in fact, consider bringing a cardigan). One more point: Most Broadway theaters put you in very close contact with your neighbors, so it’s considerate to be clean. We know New Yorkers are busy, but if you have enough time for a trip to the gym between knocking off work and arriving at the theater, work in a shower, too, please.

Arrival Is All In the Timing
Broadway theater doors typically open 30 minutes before curtain. To avoid inconvenience, check your seat assignment in advance (most theaters have seating charts online). If you have an aisle seat, you may want to arrive 15-20 minutes before curtain time (or hang out in the concession area or at the bar before taking your seat). Otherwise you’ll be constantly getting up and down as everyone else in your row trickles in. But if you’re in the center, definitely get to the theater for early seating so you won’t have to crawl over everyone else. Most important: Don’t get there late. (And be sure you check your curtain time — it’s not always 8pm any more!) Depending on the theater and the show, latecomers likely won’t be seated until there’s a break in the action, which can be half an hour into the show. And for some one-acters, you run the risk of not being seated at all.

Dinner Theater This Ain’t
All those restaurants feature pre-theater specials for a reason: It’s not a good idea to eat at the theater. At most Broadway venues, you can pick up water, beverages (alcoholic and otherwise) and candy at the concession stands. These are the only foods approved for consumption in the theater — and at some theaters, you’re required to consume them in the lobby before you enter the seating area. If you’re at a theater that does allow food inside and you want to grab a treat, do it as you’re coming in, before you’re seated. You don’t want to be the guy who gets up right before curtain, whispering “excuse me’s” as you squeeze past all the seated theatergoers to get your snack, and then likely has to do it all again on the way back in the dark after the curtain’s gone up. And even if you didn’t have time for a pre-theater meal, don’t think you can smuggle in some take out and chow down on subs, Chinese food, or cake (yes, we’ve seen people try to sneak all of these!). It’s rude to your fellow theatergoers and the ushers will likely shut your impromptu eatery down pretty fast. Also unacceptable: loudly opening cough drops during the show. Sure, everyone laughs when there’s a pre-show announcement asking people to unwrap their lozenges in advance, but you would be amazed how loud that crinkly wrap is in a hushed theater.  “To be — or not to CRINKLE.”

Please, Don’t Get Up
Yes, the women’s room can be a madhouse during intermission. But standing up and wrestling your way past a row of your fellow theatergoers at the climax of the first act to avoid the line is incredibly rude to those actually immersed in the show. Make a point of using the restroom before the show starts — either when you first arrive at the theater (a good way to while away time if you’re waiting for your row to fill up), at the restaurant after your pre-theater dinner or at a nearby Starbuck’s. “There’s a certain social contract regarding people gathered at an event,” says Roger B. Harris, founding editor and publisher of New York Theater News and London Theater News. “Act the way you’d like others to act around you.” And if the Golden Rule isn’t incentive enough for you, know that if you do get up during the show for any reason, you won’t be able to return to your seat until the usher deems there’s an appropriate break in the onstage action. And at some institutions, like the Metropolitan Opera, you won’t be allowed back in until intermission or a break that the conductor has decreed in advance might be appropriate.

Texting is Vexing
When they said the lights are oh, so bright on Broadway, they weren’t talking about illuminated phone screens. But that’s what the audiences — and the actors — see during many, many shows these days. Everyone should know to turn the ringer off. Multiple pre-show announcements and signs make that abundantly clear. And only the rudest of the rude would actually take (or even worse, make) a call during a performance. But when it comes to texting, the message hasn’t been received. Sure, it feels subtle and innocuous, but the clicking of the keys and the glow of the screen in the darkened theater are glaringly obvious to everyone. Not only does texting detract from everyone else’s experience, it does from yours as well, says Tony winner John Glover (most recently seen in Much Ado About Nothing), pointing out that if you’re texting, you’re only half paying attention, at best. “Live theater can’t be treated like the movies,” he says. “It’s a spiritual happening — you need focus and concentration.” If anyone might be expecting to hear from you while you’ll be at the show, text them beforehand to tell them you’ll be offline and then power down. As in completely off. Even if your phone is on vibrate, the buzzing of incoming messages can be distracting, both to you (who may be tempted to check them) and to everyone around you.

To Standing O or Not to Standing O
At almost every show, there’s an awkward moment right at the beginning of the curtain call. The actors start taking their bows, and half the audience rises to their feet; the other half doesn’t; and everyone looks around to figure out whether to be a stander or a sitter. If the show — or even a single performer in it — was great and you want to acknowledge that with a standing ovation, by all means, do it. But know that there’s absolutely no obligation. So don’t feel pressured — even if the rest of the audience is throwing roses and yelling “Bravo!” Pragmatically, though, if the person in front of you stands, you might as well, too. Otherwise, you’ll just be staring at someone’s back instead of watching the curtain call — which can often be a whole dance number unto itself.  One word of warning, though: When the standing starts, some theatergoers may make a break for it to beat the crowds out the door. Unless there is absolutely no one between you and the aisle, this is rude to your fellow audience members who don’t need you clambering over them just so you can get out a few minutes early. And no matter what, it’s rude to the cast, who, yes, can see you, says actor Patrick Vaill, recently seen in the Lincoln Center production of Macbeth. “Even though there might be a very legitimate and good reason such as getting home to the babysitter or catching a train back out of town, it reads to us that you didn’t like the show and aren’t acknowledging the actors who’ve worked hard — no  matter how successfully — to give you a good evening,” he explains.

Keep Track of That Cup
Since more venues are letting theatergoers take beverages, including beer and wine, from the concession area into the theater proper, they’ve started serving them in plastic cups with lids to prevent spills on that velvet or leather upholstery. Consider them sippy cups for adults. Some are branded with the name of the theater; others sport the logo of the show you’re seeing (and make nifty little souvenir). Bring your cup back at intermission and you’ll get a discount on your second round. If you’re a Broadway fan, take your sippy cup home to run through the dishwasher and bring it on your next trip to the theater for even more savings. Make a point of taking your sippy cup with you and not only will you save money and score a souvenir, you’ll also help keep all that plastic out of the landfills as well. What should you neverdo? Leave your cup on the floor of the theater. It’s easier to do than you’d think. Broadway theaters aren’t like movie theaters where there are cup-holders attached to your armrest.

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