Audience Etiquette: Leavers & Latecomers

Sign Up for Updates

Controversial aspects of audience behavior – expressing dissatisfaction by walking out early and disrupting performances by arriving late – were recently highlighted in two lengthy articles in The New York Times.

Voting with Feet. “Walk-outs” vote with their feet and skip the rest of the movie, concert, ballet, etc., for a variety of reasons. A question about their motivation posted on the paper’s Facebook page received nearly 500 responses, evoking common themes. For movies, excessive violence was a frequent complaint. For live performances, the quality of the presentation factored heavily. According to this article, accepted audience conduct varies by art form:

There is an unwritten code to walking out. It’s all right to leave a film at any time, but when there are performers onstage, the polite thing [is] to wait until intermission…In the midst of a performance, unhappy customers must weigh their personal misery against the disruption that a walkout would cause, which can be extreme.

Lacking Thick Skins. We believe that if professional performers are deeply offended by walk-outs, they lack thick skins and should perhaps re-think their career choice. Volunteer performers (members of community-based ensembles, school productions or similar groups) of course deserve more consideration from audience members.

Minimizing Distractions. At any performance, however, performers have right to be offended by walk-outs only to the degree that other audience members’ experience is compromised by visual or auditory distractions these walk-outs cause. Such disruptions are the primary reason late-arrivals are banned from entering many performances until the intermission. The author of the second article cites commonly accepted manners:

Performances start on time. Never talk during the music. Never applaud during the music…Do all you can to avoid impeding others’ view of the stage. Above all, if you arrive late, expect to remain outside the auditorium until the intermission.

He recalled arriving late to Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” in London’s Covent Garden 20 years ago and being relegated to watching the first act on a small, blurry black-and-white TV screen. Recently, after missing the start of a Met Opera matinee in New York, he was ushered into a luxurious waiting room:

It’s like a small theater itself, with tiered seating. There, we had a spacious view of the whole first act of Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” on a large screen in excellent color, with superb sound.

Entertaining Ethics. The answer to both “controversies” – walking out early or arriving late – is the Ethic of Reciprocity (or Golden Rule in Christianity): treating others how we wish to be treated. When audience members cannot police themselves, which sadly is more common these days, the venue’s staff should enforce appropriate policies.

Your Perspective? What’s your own experience with these issues – either as audience member or facility staff? Any suggestions?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More Posts