Poor audience behaviour is nothing new as London Editor Philip Fisher considers in a recent article, but the fresh rise in incidents, some quite extreme, has resulted in a spike of verifiable anecdotal reports.
The problem ranges beyond the disrespectful sharing of photographs of a nude James Norton whilst performing in A Little Life, though that incident may say more even about MailOnline who published it than the mercenary who took the image in breach of polite and clear directions not to do so.
It also goes beyond the distasteful groping of Paul Mescal’s behind by a fan at the stage door. Neither of these events or the others like them should have happened, but we well know that there is a certain element that consider celebrities fair game—the price the famous pay for accumulating significant wealth for doing something that looks glamorous and easy.
Ugly as they are, these high-profile stories are largely isolated one-offs. Underneath is a more sordid, more common and more avoidable epidemic of unacceptable audience behaviour faced nightly by the nation’s theatre workforce.
The latest survey by theatre union BECTU puts some figures on it.
Whilst Norton’s and Mescal’s experiences may deter stars from nude scenes or decline requests for selfies, the more serious problem lies in that 45% of the survey respondents consider leaving their jobs because of audience antisocial behaviour.
The majority of the 1,500+ survey participants hold jobs in front of house, hospitality, box office and at the stage door, as well as those in technical roles, and they reflect experiences working on a range of productions including jukebox musicals, comedy shows, plays, pantomime, opera and ballet.
The survey report shows that 90% of respondents had directly experienced or witnessed events that included public urination, intimidation, racial abuse, sexual harassment and physical assaults on staff or other audience members.
Unsurprising then that, amongst the incidents, there were also mass brawls, vandalism and defacing of property, disorderly, unsafe, intoxicated or lewd behaviours.
Interestingly, many respondents (70%) felt audience behaviour has deteriorated and become more extreme in nature since the pandemic. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to wonder if theatregoers drink more now than in 2019, or following the isolation of the pandemic years have people forgotten what constitutes common decency. Are people simply more selfish; perhaps, given the exponential rise of ticket prices, are they more determined than ever to enjoy themselves, no matter the cost to others?
The answers would appear to be yes, yes and yes. An overwhelming majority of respondents (90%) viewed people arriving for shows already under the influence of alcohol or other substances gave rise to bad behaviour, with others citing a culture of entitlement and a marked disregard for other audience members.
Given nearly 30% of those who answered the survey experienced or witnessed an event where police attended, it beggars belief that so many consider venue management lack the will, policies or resources to respond appropriately.
Worryingly, this is the case even though the mental health of some 20% of survey participants has been impacted by their experiences and roughly the same number have felt their safety had been jeopardised at least once.
External security, training and support have been given as possible aides to those dealing with abusive and disruptive audience members but the real answer lies not in dealing with it but preventing it.
BECTU’s forthcoming campaign, its call on zero-tolerance approach to antisocial audience behaviour and its newly launched “Safer Theatres Charter”, are a start but venue management need to invest real time and resources to make change happen.
The Safer Theatres Charter is available for signature. A survey summary and testimonies from respondents are available on the BECTU web site.