Theater & art

How to behave when you’re at the theater

Now that your focus on table manners around the Thanksgiving dinner table has passed, it’s time to switch to theater manners during this season of nutcrackers and scrooges.

A few weeks ago during a terrific production of “Guys and Dolls” at the North Shore Music Theatre, a large man sitting next to me used his ticket stub to floss his teeth and later used his hands to pat his tummy (did he think the orchestra’s percussion section needed help?). I said nothing because “Please floss at home and stop banging your drum” didn’t feel right, so I just complained to my sympathetic date.

Recently, at Boston Ballet’s “The Nutcracker,” a young couple a few rows in front of me kept their eyes on a cell phone screen for most of the show, distracting my own eyes and attention. At the same performance, however, it was easy to ignore, and even enjoy, the adorable comments coming from a mesmerized toddler in the row behind me. He kept asking when the bear was coming back and whispered occasional oohs and ahs. That distraction was easy to handle.


As someone who regularly attends live performances, I’ve collected what I think are a few helpful strategies to help you, your children, and those seated around you, enjoy your cultural outings.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

* If a perpetrator of bad behavior is close to you, put your finger to your lips or whisper a gentle request during the show or during intermission.

* Talk to an usher at intermission.

* If it’s possible, simply change seats with a member of your party who can cope better than you.

* Carefully weigh whether your child is too young (or old). Err on the side of caution, so you don’t have a crying and scared, or a bored and fidgety child you have to hustle out.


* Tell the kids about the event beforehand and if it’s “The Nutcracker” or another classic, read the story before you go.

* Talk about what they will wear and make sure they can take a layer off if they’re hot or add a layer if they’re chilly.

* Ask whether the theater has booster seats.

* Explain that they should enjoy the show quietly and save their questions and comments for intermission or after the show, unless the activitiy is participatory. And an occasional whisper is no big deal.

* And it always helps to tell kids why you expect them to behave or dress in a certain way. Let them know that if they talk it might distract other people. If they wear their magician’s hat someone behind them might not be able to see.


* Repeat to yourself these lines from “The Great Gatsby” that my daughter reminded me of: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

I also asked a few pros to chime in. Here’s what Boston Symphony Orchestra Director of Public Relations Bernadette Horgan said:

“Before each concert we ask audience members through a pre-concert audio message to turn off their cell phones to avoid potential noise disturbances that can interrupt the concert for others in attendance. Though cell phone usage is a rare occurrence during a BSO performance, if it occurs, patrons are encouraged to ask an usher to intervene in resolving any misunderstanding about the orchestra’s policy on the matter. If an usher isn’t nearby, patrons are free to directly ask the cell phone user to abide by the policy. We have found that once patrons who talk during concerts are made aware of the effects of their behavior, they are usually very cooperative in responding in a favorable manner. We realize it’s an issue that can try people’s patience so we always ask folks to remain as calm and respectful as possible in the situation, as this seems to be key in resolving the situation.”

And here’s two cents from Robin Abrahams (aka “Miss Conduct”), the Globe Magazine’s social advice columnist:

“Ever since an audience member at the BSO punched out another audience member who asked him to be quiet, I’m terrified to suggest that one reprimand theater offenders. A mild shoulder tap or finger to the lips is enough to silence those well-meaning folks who simply don’t realize how loud they are being. Observing (and eavesdropping on!) others, however, is part of the entertainment that a night at the theater provides. Sometimes the best show isn’t the one onstage.”

Email June Wulff at