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Teaching Your Child Theater Etiquette

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A couple of months ago, my family went to see a live theater show in Chicago—MAJOR theater, MAJOR show. I looked over and noticed the woman next to me had removed her booties and was sitting with her bare feet rubbing the carpet. Which I guess is better that what this Twitter user had to deal with.

Bare feet on the back of a red velvet theater seat.
Photo via Twitter user Ariane Rinehart.

Then there’s the story from Patti Murin (currently playing Anna in Frozen on Broadway) of the patron who was FaceTiming from the front row of the show. Can you imagine spending that much on tickets to FaceTime through the show? Back in April actor Joseph Morales, who was playing Alexander Hamilton in one of Hamilton’s touring productions, sent a tweet to the Salt Lake City audience lamenting the prevalent use of cell phones during the show there. Oh, there’s also the story of actress Patti Lupone who actually took away an audience member’s phone because she was texting during a show.

With fellow audience members and actors alike complaining about rudeness of some patrons, how can we as parents raise our children to have good theater etiquette? Here are some tips.

Prepare: Use movies as a way to prepare for live theater. If your child can’t sit still and be quiet through a movie, they’re probably not ready for a live show (Although, there are live children’s productions that encourage boisterous audience interaction.) Start at home until they can sit quietly through a film and then take them to the movie theater where the big screen, surround sound, and presence of other audience members provide new distractions. Productions expressly for children are often shorter, but full-length live shows can have first halves as long as an average kids’ movie! If your child can’t sit through a movie, they’re unlikely to make it through a show. Even if they can watch a whole film, it’s a great idea to start with shorter live productions aimed at children or other kid-friendly options.

Practice: Lots of communities have children’s theater, or shows performed by elementary schools, high schools, or community theaters that are intended for children. The actors and audiences at these shows expect a certain amount of wiggling and even whispering from children. These are great places to go to help children learn basic theater behavior. You can quietly remind them to sit still and quiet them as you remind them that the actors and those around them can see and hear them.

Set them up for success: Last year we took my daughter to a 7:30 PM performance of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. In front of us was a little girl who was around three years old. Needless to say, she did not enjoy herself. And until her parents thoughtfully removed her, we didn’t enjoy the show either. They can be hard to get tickets for because everyone wants to take their kids to them, but try to go to matinees, when your child will be awake and alert—and won’t be cranky because it’s bedtime.

Once your child is ready to give live theater a try, what are some of the rules they should be prepared to follow? Here are a few big ones.

Arrive early: How early? It depends on location of the show. When we’re going to a show in the city, we’ll aim at 45 minutes to allow plenty of time to park and walk to the show. Better to have extra time than be running in late. Arriving early gives you time to grab a booster seat if the theater offers them. It gives time for one last potty break—because there’s not always time to go during intermission. And late arrivals aren’t always allowed to their seats until certain times in the performance (and sometimes not until intermission), so better safe than sorry. Not rushing also makes for calmer kiddos.

Don’t leave early: Stay until all the clapping is done. Yes, it’s tempting to try to beat the rush to the parking lot, but the actors, musicians, and all the folks behind the scenes have given a lot and the curtain call is your time to give back. Stay, and as my husband and I tell our daughter, say thank you with your applause (Miss Manners will tell you, a standing ovation is not required unless a performance was truly remarkable).

Leave the snacks outside: Yes, they sell snacks at the theater, and yes, many theaters allow you to bring them into the theater now. But they’re louder than you think, and they’re distracting to the audience and performers alike. Help your children understand that live theater is a more special experience than the movies, and that the real people on stage are distracted by the noises they hear coming from the audience.

Stow your electronic devices: You’re usually asked to do so at the beginning of a show, but even if you’re not, do it anyway. Whether you’re watching a local ballet recital, or you’re sitting front row at a Broadway show, your phone is a distraction to those around you and the light can actually be dangerous to the performers on stage.

Actor Ben Platt's final curtain call in Dear Evan Hansen.
Actor Ben Platt’s final curtain call in Dear Evan Hansen. Image via You Tube user Yay Show Vids.

And one more time for the people in the back: yes, the performers can actually see you—even if you didn’t do something rude. After we won front row tickets to Hamilton, the actors we talked to at the stage door after the show knew my daughter! They remembered seeing her in the front row because of her big gold hair bow. Folks, the performers know you’re out there and they’re watching you. Give them your undivided attention and allow your fellow patrons to do the same.

Finally: Make sure all members of your party keep all their clothes on and keep their feet on the floor. Everyone in the theater will thank you.

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