Sit down, shut up and clap: A guide to theater etiquette

Downtown darling Amanda Duarte lays out a few simple guidelines to fix everyone’s theatergoing experience
Etiquette 1139
Illustration: Nico187
By Amanda Duarte |
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I am a dyed-in-the-ethically-sourced-sustainable-cashmere coastal lefty elitist. I am strenuously inclusionary and empathetic to a fault. I apologize to inanimate objects when I bump into them. I am a socialist Democrat and pacifist to the core. I love everything and everyone and the divine in me honors the divine in you. Truly.

Unless you are seated within seeing, hearing, touching, smelling or tasting distance of me in the seating arena of a Legitimate Theatre.  In that case, I do not care what gender, nationality, political party or BDSM role you claim. Whether we are at a show on Broadway or Off Broadway or anywhere else, if you do not adhere to my fascistic standards for audience behavior, we are at war.

I have told a woman in a wheelchair to stop talking. I have told a seven-foot-tall man that if he didn’t stop fucking with a plastic bag I would suffocate him with it. I have threatened to shove peanut M&Ms up the ass of a senior citizen who would not stop loudly chomping on them and twisting their wrapper open and shut. I like to think that because I am female, middle-aged, five (5) feet tall and as physically fit as a banana cream pie, these threats are taken in the semi-serious spirit in which they are intended, but there is a real risk that someday I will be challenged to shit or get off 45th Street. So for the sake of everyone’s safety and my criminal record, let’s establish some ground rules.

Sit the fuck down. Arrive early, let the ushers show you to your seat, and then sit the fuck down in it. If you are seated closer to the aisle, politely stand and/or exit the row when those who are seated closer to the center need to pass. Do not grunt. Do not huff exasperatedly. This is simple physics. You are not the only person in the world. And you are not seriously planning on getting up and touching the set, like that asshole who tried to help himself to a LaCroix the night I saw The Antipodes, are you? Sit the fuck down.

Shut the fuck up. Do not talk. Do not talk about how much you like the play. Do not talk about how much you do not like the play. Do not talk about how much your ex-wife would have not liked the play. Do not narrate the action of the play. Do not question the action of the play. Do not talk back to the actors. Do not sing along with the singers. Do not emit satisfied hums to let everyone around you know that you really got that James Joyce reference. We all got it. We’re just not narcissistic goats about it. Shut the fuck up.

Sit the fuck still. Don’t tap your leg. Don’t drum on your knees. Don’t kick the seat in front of you. Don’t nervously flick the edges of your playbill. Don’t get up to go to the restroom. You should have gone before the show started. Hold it. If you can’t hold it, go in your purse. Sit the fuck still.

Do not eat or drink. This isn’t the movies. This isn’t a restaurant. This isn’t your living room. This is live theater being performed and witnessed by live human beings. For the love of Elaine Stritch, you can make it through a 1.5–2 hour window of time without shoving snack foods into your maw. If you have a life-threatening blood sugar problem, a food addiction or a severe oral fixation, the Great Creators of Theatre have intelligently designed most plays to have an intermission, during which time it is appropriate for you to feed your beast and drink your juice, Shelby.

And yes, I know they sell food and drink at the theater. They also sell heroin in Washington Square Park. The availability of a product for sale does not compel one to buy it. Theaters sell concessions in order to offset the skyrocketing costs of the art form, such as securing luminaries like boy-band castoffs and Grumpy Cat to play leading roles that would be better played by actual trained performers. Until they innovate completely silent snack packaging, perhaps in a raw silk—and, for the love of Stritch, until they stop putting my mortal enemy ice in the drinks—I encourage you to join me in boycotting this undemocratic capitalist bloodletting. Bring a bottle of water and a Kind bar, ingest both at intermission, then go out to a sexy late dinner after the show. (This is also where the Great Creators of Theatre intended for you to talk about the play.)

Turn. Off. Your. Cellular. Device. You know this. Everyone knows this. They made a painfully “clever” announcement about it before the curtain. You are not the exception. Turn the phone all the way off. Do not text. Do not talk. Do not Tinder. If your cellular device emits a sound or a beam of light, I will throw it in the Hudson and I will be applauded for doing so. I don’t care if you’re an on-call surgeon. Theater is the closest most of us underinsured descamisados come to affordable medical treatment these days. First do no harm. Turn it off.

Take that gum out of your mouth. Gum is a scourge. It is a menace. It is why Trump won. Worried about your breath? Good. You should be. You are seated in close quarters with people who appreciate an art form that is constantly on life support. Pop a mint. Tongue a Listerine strip. Baptize your mouth with Binaca. Gum is noisy and rude and messy and puerile. Spit it out. You are a grown person.

Be over 25 years old, and preferably over 30. Children do not belong at the serious theater. Take them to something like SpongeBob or The Lion King if you must, but for Stritch’s sake do not subject your child to Three Tall Women. They will be bored out of their gourds and do the annoying things that children do when they’re bored, all of which should be illegal. Get a sitter, or just drop them off at Dave & Buster’s. They won’t miss you. They don’t like you that much. They’ll be fine.

Wear clothing. Honestly, I don’t care if you dress up. I don’t care if you dress down. Just wear something clean, with closed-toed shoes if you are male (yes, male feet are worse) and take your hat off. And please leave the jangly bangle bracelets at the Atlantic City casino where they belong. They’re noisy and annoying—and if you’re wearing them, you probably are too.

Be healthy. If you are sick, do not attend the live theater. You are loud and gross and a bioterrorist. Reschedule your tickets, stay home and cough and sneeze and spew and snort into your couch. If you are no longer actively spreading plague but have a nagging cough or sore throat, then for the glory of Stritch on high, unwrap your cough drops before the show and put them in an easily accessed bag of silent raw silk. If, because you are a sociopath who is incapable of thinking of others for one minute, you forget to do this and must unwrap a cough drop during the performance, do it quickly in one fell rude swoop. Do not drag it out, thinking that the longer it takes the less we will hear it. We hear every agonizing crinkle of that stupid thing, and all we can think is, “Just get it over with!” So just get it over with. But honestly? Just stay home. You’re terrible.

Fucking clap. I don’t care if you have a piece to file, insulin to shoot up or kids to pick up at Dave & Buster’s. They can wait for one American minute while you proffer the only tip requested by the hardworking performers who have just given you hours of their lives and souls. Even if it’s bad, even if it’s Grumpy Cat, Stritch have mercy even if it was a Neil LaBute joint, they deserve your gratitude. Stand up if you need to validate your ticket price. I don’t care. Just don’t walk out at curtain call. Fucking clap.

Culture is the constant and necessary companion to civilization, which has been defined as  “a triumph of mind over matter, of reason over instinct and of the distinctly human over mankind's animal nature.” Live performance is the last bastion of analog culture we’ve got. We enter a contract with the performers, each other, and ourselves to triumph over our animal nature, to synch our heartbeats, to create magic in the dark. Don’t you want to feel your heart beat with mine? Then sit the fuck down, shut the fuck up and fucking clap, or I will murder you. Namaste.

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Amanda Duarte is a writer, performer and the host of Dead Darlings. She contributes to The New York Times, smokes a lot of weed and sees a lot of theatre. You can follow her on Twitter at @duarteamanda.

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