We’ve all read about them, or maybe even witnessed them: people behaving badly at concerts, plays, museums and other public places.
Maybe it’s the TikTok addict sitting in front of you at your kid’s ballet performance, or the person who insists on talking to their babysitter during the slow movement of the symphony. Or the Broadway star wannabe who feels the overwhelming urge to dance and sing along to the “Hamilton” performance you paid top dollar to see. Or the hairbag yelling things at the stage during your favorite singer’s quiet love song.
What’s up with the boorish behavior? Many think it’s a post-COVID thing, or perhaps a sign that a new generation of fans just didn’t get the memo about being respectful toward others. Maybe all that streaming and texting has permanently changed our viewing habits. Perhaps Will Smith’s infamous Oscar slap opened the floodgates — a big movie star has given us permission to express exactly how we feel, right out there in public, and damn the consequences.
Piercing the fourth wall is an act with a long history that carries considerable sociological significance, according to Kirsty Sedgman, a specialist in cultural studies and human behavior who teaches at the University of Bristol. "Live performance venues have always been the canary in the coal mine. Big societal frustrations and social changes tend to erupt in the performance venues first,” Sedgman said in an interview with Sky News.
The result, she says, can be mayhem: “Social contracts collapsing everywhere and bad behavior, with often increasingly belligerent and even violent interactions between different people erupting everywhere from theaters into cafes and restaurants and on public transport."
Rowdiness at the theater is as old as ancient Greece. In Shakespeare’s time, rough and responsive audiences were the norm.
“In general, audiences were much more rowdy and directly involved in the show than we are today,” claims an article on Seattle Shakespeare’s website. “Shakespeare’s soliloquies would be said directly to the audience, who could potentially answer back. The audience would move around, buy food and ale in the theater, clap for the hero, boo the villain, and cheer for the special effects. The audience might dance at the end of a comedy along with the characters onstage. If an audience didn’t like a play, they might even throw furniture and damage the theater.”
A reintroduction to the etiquette of public behavior
We asked local arts leaders what they’ve noticed in their venues and got them to speculate a bit about what they think is going on. Bad behavior is only one of several post-pandemic changes they’ve witnessed.
“I have seen a trend of some people being louder in the museum than before the pandemic: not moderating their voices, talking loudly on their phones, letting children run wild, etc., “ said Mary Platt, director of Chapman University’s Hilbert Museum. “But a kind word from our … docents will usually moderate that.” Museums benefit from the constant presence of staff whose main purpose is to keep crowds respectful and artwork unmolested.
Renee Bodie, manager of Soka University’s Performing Arts Center, saw a direct relation between masking requirements and audience behavior just after her venue re-opened.
“We initially had some unruly audience situations when we were enforcing masking in the theater. However, that has calmed down since masking became voluntary.”
Kelly Radomske, vice president of external affairs at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, has noticed more disconnectedness than rudeness in post-pandemic crowds. She sees these changes especially among students that frequently visit the museum. Radomske thinks that it’s important for young people in particular to be reintroduced to the etiquette of public behavior in such situations.
“School students seem a bit more hesitant to engage socially, but they warm up during the course of their visit. This is evidence to us (and many of the teachers we tour) of how important these tours are and, in fact, how important places like museums are in terms of rebuilding community and providing a safe space for creating face-to-face connections.”
Focus, attention span and related skills also seem to have been affected by the enforced isolation of the pandemic, according to Larry Rosenberg, director of the Anaheim Ballet. He notices it in the classes he teaches. “The most obvious observed difference (I see) is in our dance students, from young children to university attendees: shortened attention spans and impaired social interaction skills.”
Bad behavior isn’t universal
Another widely observed change in audience behavior happens before they arrive at the venue. They’re waiting, often until the last minute, to purchase a ticket.
“With the uncertainty that the pandemic brought, some patrons seem to prefer making plans closer to the event date, possibly to accommodate any unexpected changes,” said Oánh Nguyen, executive artistic director of the Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills.
“We are definitely finding more last-minute ticket sales, as well as a far greater number of online sales over walk-up box-office sales,” Bodie said.
“There has been a definite trend toward last-minute purchases,” said Andrew Brown, president and CEO of Pacific Chorale. “Tickets can surge as late as the last two to three days before a performance.”
Post-pandemic audiences are shunning moderately priced tickets, too, Brown noted. “Interestingly since the pandemic, there has also been a low-level decline in mid-price ticket purchases as patrons seem to have gravitated into two groups, either seeking the best or the cheapest seats.”
Brown has tried to adapt to the new trend, with some success.
“Patrons have become a bit better at letting us know in advance if they will not be able to attend. Offering more accommodating exchange, refund, and ‘on account’ policies may have helped contribute to that.”
Not everyone has noticed a decline in civility among arts patrons. Nguyen says his audiences have actually become better behaved since the pandemic ended.
“We've observed a heightened sense of appreciation and respect for the performers and the art form. Audience members appear to be more engaged and attentive, recognizing the value of live performances after a period of absence. This has created a positive atmosphere that benefits both the artists and the audience.”
Perhaps there’s a light at the end of the tunnel – and it’s not an usher’s probing flashlight looking for scofflaws and rowdies.