In a 2016 piece on NPR, writer Gene Demby talked about his first time going to the theatre: “Not being a regular theatergoer or a Broadway vet meant I didn’t know exactly how to be in the audience. I was unfamiliar with the rituals and customs of that space to be worried that I might be doing it wrong somehow.” We believe in the magic of theatre, and that magic is for everyone. Still, there is such a thing as theatre etiquette—and general know-how—when you decide to take the leap and see your first show.
BEFORE YOU GET TO THE THEATRE
1. Use the bathroom.
Lines for the restrooms at the theatre notoriously run long, not to mention the bathrooms often sit on a lower basement level or a mezzanine level, which means a lot of stairs (not always great in heels, or with young children or older guests). Use the bathroom before arrival. You’ll be happier you did.
2. Leave big bags at home.
If you can, try not to bring large backpacks or shopping bags to the theatre. Rows in a Broadway house (theatre) are often close together, and seats can feel snug. Plus, all bags will be searched by security as you enter the theatre. The less baggage the better.
3. Dress to impress.
There is no official dress code to attend a Broadway show, meaning you won’t be turned away from a theatre for dressing too casually. However, Broadway is a special occasion. Tuxedos and gowns are no longer the norm, but think of what you might wear to a nice dinner. “To see people dressing up for the singular event of a Broadway show just is the most glorious thing,” says actor Jefferson Mays. “It always warms my heart when I go out the stage door and I see some kid wearing a bow tie and a jacket or dressed as a character from the play because they heard about it before.” (Side note: Theatres can be cold, so you may wish to bring a sweater.)
WHEN YOU GET TO THE THEATRE
1. Doors open half an hour before curtain.
Ticketholders gain access to the theatre one half hour before the start of the performance. You can certainly arrive then, get settled, buy merchandise—but it’s not necessary. The line outside the theatre may actually be quite long at this point, so it’s not a problem to come later, so long as you arrive before the printed time on your ticket. Which reminds us: Don’t be late. More and more shows are not allowing late seating, which means you’ll have to watch the show on a monitor in the lobby until intermission (or for the length of the show if it’s only one act).
2. Choose the right entrance line.
When you arrive at the theatre, join the correct line. Typically, one line covers attendees who have their tickets in hand and one line covers box office (or “will call”) for people who need to pick up their tickets on site. Ask uniformed employees at the main door to the theatre about which line is which so that you don’t waste time.
3. While the lights are still up….
Read over your Playbill for performance information. Sometimes the director includes a note that contextualizes what you’re about to see. You’ll also learn: how many acts are in the show, if there is an intermission and how long it will last and any last-minute cast changes. You can also find great recommendations for restaurants in the area for a post-show drink or snack.
4. No photos.
No photography or recording is permitted during the performance. (Patti LuPone can remind you of this one.) It’s unlawful and distracting to the performers. But, you also cannot take pictures of the stage before the show. The show curtain and set are proprietary. So if you want to snap a glamour shot of you and your group at the theatre, take it without the stage in the background or take one at the stage door! (See below)
5. Tuck your bags away.
For the bags that you did bring, secure them under your seat or in front of you, especially if you’re seated on the aisle. Performers may use the aisles as entrances and exits, and you wouldn’t want to be the reason they trip!
6. Turn off your phone.
This could be the number one rule in theatre etiquette. Turn off your phone. Not vibrate. Not silent. Alarms can still go off on those settings, not to mention that your phone can still light up. The sounds and lights distract your fellow audience members and the performers onstage, so no texting, and don’t use your phone as a flashlight to flip through your program. Remember: This is live theatre—not a movie. The actors can hear and see you.
7. That pre-show announcement includes real rules.
Shows have gotten creative with their pre-show announcements—the recorded speech that plays before the curtain rises. Some sport accents or time-period-themed jokes; all ask you to turn off your phones (which we already covered), unwrap your candies and sit back and relax. Unwrapping candies, mints and snacks of any kind is a real thing. If you think you’ll need one in the next 90 minutes, unwrap it. Eating is for intermission. The crinkling really can ruin the performances for others around you and the talent. When they say “sit back,” they mean it. Leaning forward can block the view of the person behind you, which blocks the view of the person behind them when they adjust. It’s a domino effect you don’t want to catalyze.
8. When should I applaud?
Excellent question! Here in the U.S. (as opposed to London’s West End, for example), entrance applause—when an actor walks onstage for the first time—is common for certain high-profile stars. If you’re at a musical, applaud following musical numbers. For musicals and straight plays, blackouts cue applause. If a scene ends, but there is no blackout, follow the lead of the rest of the audience.
9. Stay quiet throughout the show.
Aside from a ringing cell phone, talking during a performance is the most distracting offense of theatre etiquette. Don’t turn to your neighbor and ask what’s going on. Hold out until intermission. The more you talk, the more the people around can’t hear the people onstage. If you’re attending with a young child, it’s a good idea to arrive early and explain the story to your little one before the show starts. Challenge them to the quiet game: While the lights are off, we can’t make any sound! If you’re attending a show with music you know and love, that’s great! But, save the sing-a-long for the car ride or your next Broadway karaoke night.
DURING INTERMISSION AND AFTER THE SHOW
1. Keep your comments neutral or positive.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Still, we recommend that while inside (and very close to) the theatre, you keep commentary in neutral-to-positive territory. You never know what director or actor’s mom is sitting nearby and listening.
2. Check out the orchestra pit.
Broadway employs live orchestras for the music played during shows. In most theatres, the orchestra sits in a “pit” below the stage. If you walk to the front of the orchestra section, you can peer over the ledge and see the musicians.
3. Visit the stage door.
The stage door outside the theatre is where all of the actors exit. You can meet the talent post-show and have them sign memorabilia. Ask the ushers where the stage door is (sometimes it’s on a different street than the main entrance). It’s smart to bring a Sharpie marker, though most performers carry their own. You can get great snapshots at the stage door, but be sure to ask before taking a photo.
That’s it! You’re equipped and ready. Go have fun, and make a memory!
Orchestra - The ground level of seating.
Mezzanine - The next tier of seating. Many theatres only have these two levels.
Boxes – Seating on the mezzanine level but farther forward than the lip of the full mezzanine (a bit like hanging on the walls of the theatre).
Balcony – The third and highest tier of seating.
House – Often used to describe a Broadway theatre, but can also mean the part of the theatre where audiences sit. (“The house is open” means that attendees are allowed inside.)
Intermission - Theatre's version of halftime. Most shows have a ten to 15-minute intermission.
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby, including dozens of interviews with celeb moms and dads for parents.com. See more at ruthiefierberg.com and follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.