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?