When Audiences Take “Best Party In Town” Marketing At Their Word

The last few months I have been seeing a number of stories about audiences in UK theaters being abusive toward staff and other patrons. A week or so ago, The Stage reported that Edinburgh Playhouse staff had been punched and spat upon, moving the director to call out the bad behavior on Twitter, saying the abuse was affecting the mental health of staff.

“Where in the past we had very isolated incidents, we now have a greater number of incidents. But when people are asked to modify their behaviour, the most common answers are: ‘I don’t care.’ And when we tell them they are disturbing people behind them, they say: ‘I don’t care, I have paid for my ticket, I will do what I want.’ That seems to be the most common thing.”


“It is really horrible for them and staff can be scared to come to work. And what I hear from other theatre directors is that we are dealing with a mental-health crisis in our staff as well, and this is part of it, a part of what fuels it,” he said.

The bad behavior has become such a problem, theater management are reportedly changing their marketing messaging, asking that phrases like “best party in town” and “dancing in the aisles” not be used.

On Tuesday, Colin Marr, director of the Edinburgh Playhouse theatre, told the Stage that audience behaviour was the worst he had known in his five years in charge. “One of the main things we are trying to do is around messaging and working closely with producers,” he said. “We are talking to them about marketing. So, when we market shows let’s not have phrases such as ‘best party in town’ or ‘dancing in the aisles’ – the show has something much stronger than that to sell.”


An ATG spokesperson confirmed the company was working with producers on marketing. “We’re taking a multidisciplinary approach to tackling challenging audience behaviour, covering all points of the customer journey, including how we market shows. We want everyone to fully enjoy the experience of a show and we work closely with producers to create appropriate marketing material,” they said.

These stories raise an interesting point. There has been a lot of conversation about how many performing arts experiences used to be bawdy, raucous affairs and the current sedate, staid attendance experience has been artificially imposed relatively recently. But given that there is physical and emotional violence being directed at staff and other audience members, is a return to a less restricted environment the best course? Should theater staff step back and not try to impose a specific type of behavior on attendees who want to sing and dance along the show, thereby removing the point of tension and potentially leaving them in a safer place?

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


1 thought on “When Audiences Take “Best Party In Town” Marketing At Their Word”

  1. So I’ve been one of those who points at the historical conditions of theater attendance and sees the move toward the silent. passive audience as not necessarily the best one (the book to read is Lawrence Levine’s “Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America”). And so there is a part of me that wants to point out that, if you are going to produce jukebox musicals or musicals in which popular music makes up the score, you have asked for the transfer of the pop concert rules into the theater. When people go to an ABBA concert, they sing and dance along with the musicians, so it is only natural that they attend “Mama Mia!” they want to do the same. The argument has frequently been that those spectators are negatively affecting the experience of their neighbors. But isn’t that about expectations? If you go to a pop concert thinking that you’re going to sit quietly in your seat and enjoy the concert, you’re going to feel as if you’ve been negatively impacted by all the people who are on their feet screaming all the time. Meanwhile, if you make a peep during a classical concert (even involuntary peeps like coughing), or (God forbid) clap at the “wrong time,” you are cast into the deepest ring of hell. I get it: every art form has rules. But if theater is trying to appeal to a broader audience, then you have to expect that they will violate your rules. Now, that doesn’t mean violence is acceptable, not at all. BUT when you start talking about “emotional violence” (by which is meant resistance), you need to look at what you are asking your FOH staff to enforce. Are you asking them to enforce an upper-class WASP-y approach to theater while simultaneously trying to appeal to the masses? If so, YOU’VE created the situation, not the audience. The “I paid good money for this ticket” reaction is a stupid thing to say, and reflects our current neo-liberal focus on the primacy of money over etiquette. And I am not arguing that there ought to be no rules, but rather that theaters need to be consistent in their values or be explicit about the rules upfront and risk the scold-y “turn off your cell phones, don’t take pictures or videos, just sit in your seats and STFU” pre-curtain speech. Soon, you will have the silent audience you want. After which you should avoid scheduling “Jersey Boys” at your theater!


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