As a reviewer for the Charleston City Paper, I've encountered my share of rude and ignorant audience members. There are the talkers, the cell phone users, and the folks who get up multiple times throughout the show — even if they're sitting in the front row. One time, a kid sitting next to me took off his sweaty shoes after the curtain went up and didn't put them back on until the final act. And then there was the guy who started rifling through my purse during a performance, only to sit back down to enjoy the rest of the show after I'd caught him. Needless to say, at each of these, I had trouble focusing on the actual performance.
But perhaps no one is more aware of how badly behaved audience members can be than the folks on stage and behind the scenes. They're the ones being interrupted and distracted. They're the ones having to work harder to keep your attention. While everyone we spoke to emphasized their undying love for their supportive audiences, many admitted that one bad apple can ruin the whole damn bunch.
As a co-owner of Theatre 99, Brandy Sullivan has seen her share of bad eggs over the last 15 years. "There's so much opportunity for people to participate because they are half of the show, but we've certainly had some instances where people have had too much to drink," Sullivan says. "We try to call these people out because the audience wants us to. Everyone around them has paid money to be there, and we're very protective of the people who want to come and have a good time."
If you've ever attended a show at the Meeting Street theater, you've probably come in contact with the guy who thinks he belongs on stage or the girl who drank so much she's lost control of her volume control. You've probably also seen the comedians' cutting wit in action. At one recent show, Sullivan says they incorporated a loud-mouth into the scene as a neighbor they wished would "just shut the hell up." After being laughed at by the rest of the crowd, the offending party did just that.
"Sometimes people are just so doggone excited, they just want to talk out loud," Sullivan says. "I don't know if it's Tourette's or something. Sometimes people who haven't been exposed to this type of theater treat it like it's stand-up comedy."
Over at the Village Playhouse in Mt. Pleasant, the laid-back, cabaret environment has made some guests feel a bit too relaxed.
"On occasion, because the tables are so close to the stage, folks often feel comfortable, almost like they're at home," says Artistic Director Keely Enright. "We've had moments where people put their feet on the stage, their cups on the stage. They're not trying to be rude. It's just thoughtless more than anything else."
Enright also notes one instance where a woman showed up at a Village Playhouse performance in a mesh top — wearing nothing underneath. "She was basically naked," Enright says. No doubt the audience got more of a show than they bargained for that night.
For Sheri Grace Wenger, a local theater veteran, common pet peeves include cell phones going off during a play, late arrivals, and talkers. Another problem: cough drops and candy. "Usually they unwrap them very slowly, thinking that will keep anyone from hearing it," Wenger says.
But sometimes the biggest troublemakers wait until the very end of the show, according to Kyle Barnette of What If? Productions and the Charleston Ballet Theatre.
"The thing I have noticed the most as a performer, director, and house manager is when people get up and start leaving before a curtain call," Barnette says. "I think that is ruder and more inconsiderate in a way than bringing a screaming infant or talking on your cell phone — both of which are horrible displays of poor theater etiquette."
Barnette saw one instance recently. "The curtain goes down and comes back up for the curtain call, and there on the first or second row are people standing up, putting on their coats, and hurriedly walking down the aisles. Where could you possibly have to be that you can't take an extra 30 seconds or so to show your appreciation for the hard work that went into entertaining you for the past two hours? ... Not only is it disruptive to the audience, who is showing their appreciation, but it is disrespectful to the performers on stage, who — believe me — do notice."
The theater should not be an intimidating place, but let's end with a lesson on etiquette. Use the restroom before the show. Turn your cell phones off and zip your lips, unless the people on stage encourage you to talk. And stay the hell out of my purse.