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The 5 weirdest things we've witnessed at the theatre

Written by
Maxim Boon

Most of the time, good behaviour is just common sense. Holding a door open for someone; saying please and thank you; not farting in an elevator: life’s little courtesies aren’t rocket science.

And what’s true for everyday life usually goes for those more niche occasions too, like a trip to the theatre. Now, here at Time Out we’re not a bunch of finger-wagging protocol pedants. In fact, we’re all for a little less formality and little more chill when it comes to the arts’ many Ps and Qs. But now and then, somebody stumbles into a theatre and kneecaps the usual niceties so spectacularly it needs to be called out.

We’ve picked the brains of our roster of critics to hear their experiences of audiences behaving badly. Take note y’all, this might just save you from your next theatrical faux pas.

Beware of liquids, both alcoholic and onstage

Illustration: Katya Cameron

At a very small independent theatre in Sydney there was a production that had a shallow pool full of water on a very, very small stage, close to the front row. Now, to be fair to the makers of this show, they were very careful about making sure that everyone near the pool knew it was there and to be extra careful to avoid falling in. So, obviously, the closest person to this potential hazard clearly decided to block this advice out.

The woman in question was not the best-behaved person in general – she wasn’t talking loudly but pretty consistently and enjoying her shiraz throughout the show – so, I’ll admit there was a tiny part of me that was possibly willing it to happen (it’s a small theatre, and the actors can hear every little thing in the space, so if you’re talking in the front row, they can definitely hear you).

The show ended, the house lights came up, and before she’d even really gotten to her feet, she overshot her balance and not only went headfirst into the pool, but somehow (and I’m honestly not sure how she achieved this so comprehensively) threw the entire contents of her handbag into the pool. She was totally fine, but could not have ended up in the pool any more dramatically if she tried. I think the rest of us in the audience were shocked, but not surprised.

Ben Neutze
Time Out arts editor 

Remember, being inconsiderate is not a superpower

Illustration: Katya Cameron

Sometimes, really shit superheroes come to see a show, like the person who thinks they’re invisible (they’re not) and seems not to know (or care) that theatres are communal spaces where the rest of the audience, not to mention the performers, can see and hear them.

I’ll never forget the regular “fizzzzz” of a Coke bottle being sloooowly opened during the first quiet hour of Einstein on the Beach at the State Theatre. Or the time at the Melbourne Fringe, when I was yelled at by a woman filming a show on her phone. Of course, the pre-show announcement included “No filming”. On behalf of the rows of frustrated people behind her, I asked her to stop. Everyone heard, “You’re rude! That’s my sister.”

Then there was the guy in the second row of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette at the Playhouse. When Hannah started talking about men, he turned his phone on and opened his banking app. I whispered, “Turn it off!” and he sheepishly put it in his crotch. But until he was told to stop, he was totally comfortable doing whatever the flip he pleased, during a show that you’d need to be semi-lobotomised not to be totally transfixed by.

Anne-Marie Peard 
Melbourne critic 

Hobbies and self-care are best left at home

Illustration: Katya Cameron

I get it. We live in a hyper-stimulated world, where we’re fully used to doing several things at once while also dual screening, face-tuning a selfie and live-tweeting the whole damn thing. So going to a show or concert where you’re expected to do just the one thing – sit quietly while being entertained for an hour or two – goes against the grain of Millennial modus operandi. But it seems some of our older generations aren’t immune to the multitasking status quo of the modern world either. At a matinee performance a couple of years ago, as the house lights went down and the curtain went up, three almost identical little old ladies decided to combine their trip to theatre with a little crafternooning. They all fished out their knitting from their handbags and started click-clacking away for pretty much the entire show. And this was not some unobtrusive, gently therapeutic knitting, but some Michael Bay-level speed-freak needling that sounded like a Geiger counter at Chernobyl.

Another truly head-scratching occurrence was the incident of a lady who, during a very intimate chamber music concert, started loudly brushing her hair as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Sure, we’ve all had those days when the doo just won’t behave itself, but I’m pretty certain loudly styling your coif can wait till interval.

Maxim Boon 
Melbourne critic 

Leave your social media cat video FOMO at the door

Illustration: Katya Cameron

Theatres are dark, right? So when someone uses a phone, it’s not an inconspicuous thing. I was seeing a show at a mid-sized theatre, when someone about three rows from the front decided that sitting through a 90-minute light comedy wasn’t something they could do without constant contact with cat videos. Not some important breaking news or an urgent personal crisis that needed their attention, but videos of cats. A lot of them. I think what was most shocking was just the sheer brazen commitment to checking the feed for these animal videos, in full view of pretty much 90 per cent of the audience. Plus, you’ve got to think about the actors, who are looking out at an auditorium where there’s this one face, up-lit by a phone, three rows from the front totally ignoring them. The person I was seeing the show with was so annoyed by the end that they had to say something to the cat video fan, but they were totally unfazed and just could not see what our issue was.

Cassie Tongue
Sydney critic 

If you’re going to protest, pick a cause the audience can get behind

Illustration: Katya Cameron

An opening night at the State Theatre is a fancy affair, with ball gowns and black tie and Champagne. So not really the setting for a protest. But at the opening night of Rigoletto, as the curtain was about to go up, a very elderly gent stood up in the front row and started yelling through a megaphone. Dramatic, to be sure, but unfortunately he wasn’t all that good with the megaphone, and no one really could really understand a word he was saying. Of course, the 2,000 people who had rocked up to hear some opera began to get antsy themselves, but the angry man with the megaphone refused to leave. The ushers tried to persuade him, but he wouldn’t budge. Negotiation was a non-starter, but this gentleman was very elderly, so a scrum of security men wasn’t really an option either. Eventually, the man was carefully lifted by staff and carried out, while continuing to shout incoherently. But what exactly was this man’s epic beef? Free Tibet maybe? Climate change perhaps? Better treatment for refugees? Nope, it turns out this is Australian composer George Dreyfus (father of former attorney-general Mark Dreyfus), who was commissioned by Opera Australia in 1970 to pen The Gilt-Edged Kid, an opera that the company never ended up performing. Fast forward 50 years, and Dreyfus, aged 90, is still salty AF about the snub and demands justice, or at least that’s what I assume he was demanding. He really should get a better megaphone.

Cass Knowlton
Melbourne Editor

Check out our critics' picks of the best shows coming to Melbourne and our tips for where to sit in the city's biggest theatres.

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