List 13: How to Enjoy Theatre

In a world where we are doing more and more interacting via screens it is refreshing to occasionally share an experience in the presence of other human beings. Sure, live tweeting a TV show is one way to enjoy entertainment with a crowd, but there is no substitute for being in the same room as your fellow audience members while performers put on a show right before your eyes. That is, I like live theatre.

A lot of people don’t go to theatre and may even claim they don’t like it. Theatre is just a form of entertainment like television or movies. Just like television and movies the content of theatre varies widely in tone and style. There is some theatre to appeal to every taste.

I blame high school for why so many adults have no interest in theatre. Many people still associate theatre with being forced to read Shakespeare in English class or with the antisocial behavior of the “drama geeks.” Unfortunately, neither iambic pentameter nor angst ridden teenagers are the best ambassadors for this exciting art form. If your view of theatre has been tainted by such memories, please give it another chance.

Others avoid theatre because it is unfamiliar, and they don’t know how to know what to see. Or they think they can’t afford it. Or theatre just seems so foreign a concept that they don’t know what to expect. If that you fall into one of those categories I’ve made this list to help you.

Below are hints on finding plays you might like, getting tickets you can afford, and fitting in when you go.

  1. Some people spell it “theatre” while others spell it “theater.”  Don’t think too hard about it.
  2. Go see a play. Seriously, it’s the best way to know whether you like it.
  3. If you normally see musicals try out a “straight” play for once. If you normally don’t go to the theatre just go.
  4. Go see another show. They are not all alike.
  5. How should you pick a show? Ask for recommendations from a theatre loving friend (if you have one). Ideally ask someone who has similar tastes in other forms of entertainment.
  6. Look at theatre listings in local papers and websites. If a title and short description catch your eye look for more information on the theatre’s website or in local news media.
  7. Read preview articles. Although a few theatres have experimented with online trailers, preview articles are usually the way to learn about a play and its production before it has opened.
  8. Read reviews. Just remember that theatre critics are expressing their opinions. Use reviews as guides not gospel. Perhaps why a critic doesn’t like something doesn’t sound like it would bother you, or something he raves about sounds annoying. Have you ever liked a TV show or movie that the critics hated or hated one that was critically acclaimed?
  9. Look at awards and award nominations. Much like reviews, people will argue the merit of awards, but awards and nominations are indicators that at least a few people think something is good. In Chicago we have the Joseph Jefferson Awards that recognize excellence in local Equity and non-Equity theatre.
  10. (Equity refers to Actor’s Equity Association which is the stage actors’ union, by the way.)
  11. Start with something familiar. A lot of plays have been made into movies and vice versa. (Hairspray was a movie that was made into a stage musical that was made into a movie musical.) Seeing a show for which you liked the movie is a good way to explore the differences of the entertainment forms.
  12. Look to the stars. You will sometimes see film and television actors performing in live plays. (Diane Lane is currently in Sweet Bird of Youth at the Goodman, and you’ll likely see many familiar names if you look at the ensemble lists for the Steppenwolf and Looking Glass.) Going to see an actor you like is a fine excuse for seeing a play.
  13. Take a chance. If a poster catches your eye or you notice a theatre in your neighborhood, be adventurous and just go.
  14. If tickets seem too expensive, check all the price options. Weeknights and matinees are usually cheaper than Friday and Saturday night performances. Large theatres may have tiered pricing for different sections of seats.
  15. Check for other discounts. Many theatres offer discounts for seniors, students, teachers or people from the neighborhood. The WBEZ member card includes discounts for some theatres.
  16. Look for discount ticket services. Hot Tix offers half price tickets for many shows in Chicago.
  17. See if your city or neighborhood does a Free Night of Theatre event. The national event sponsored by the Theatre Communications Group (TCG) stopped last year, but some cities are carrying on the tradition independently. Unfortunately, we missed Chicago’s Free Night this year.
  18. Look for “Pay What You Can (PWYC)” performances. These sometimes show up on a theatre’s web site or social media feeds as a matter of goodwill or just to fill a performance that isn’t selling well. (Technically you could see the shows for free, but please give the theatre some money if you can.)
  19. Go to Shakespeare in the Park. Shakespearean dialogue can be off-putting to those not used to it, but since these warm weather productions are often free you might be more willing to put up with the poetry.
  20. Attend preview performances. Some theatres hold a few early public performances under the caveat that the show may still be undergoing some adjustments before the official opening. Because the show is not officially ready, these tickets are cheaper than those for the rest of the run.
  21. Consider smaller theatres. Typically the bigger the theatre (both in name and size), the bigger the ticket price. Neighborhood, non-equity theatres are generally more affordable than their nationally acclaimed counterparts.
  22. See shows at schools. College and even high school productions can be surprisingly good, or at least have surprisingly good elements if the overall show feels a bit uneven. The great thing is that the tickets are usually cheap, and you are supporting students with big dreams. Your presence and applause will be precious to them.
  23. Offer to volunteer at a theatre. Most theatres give free tickets to their volunteers. In some cases you may even be able to volunteer as an usher and see the show that same night.
  24. If you still can’t find a way to afford a show you want to see, call the theatre and tell them your predicament. There will be little they can do for something that it selling out every night, but sometimes they may be able to get you a discounted or free ticket for an upcoming performance that isn’t selling well. Most theatres would prefer to have people seeing their shows at a heavily discounted price (or even for free) than to have empty seats.
  25. If you are making an evening of your theatre going check for relationships that the theatre may have with local restaurants. Nearby restaurants may offer prix fixe pre-theatre menus designed to get you to your seats on time, or they may offer discounts if you bring your tickets or program after the show.
  26. Once you’ve chosen your show, find out how long it is. Many modern plays run under 90 minutes and are performed without an intermission. In contrast, when the Goodman did The Iceman Cometh earlier this year it ran four hours and 45 minutes with three intermissions. It’s nice to know which end of that spectrum the show you are seeing is on. If you can’t find the run time on the theatre’s website or in reviews you can ask the box office.
  27. Typically the larger the theatre the fancier the expected dress, but nowadays I regularly see people at major theatres in jeans. I like to use a theatre night as an excuse to dress up, but don’t let fear of a dress code keep you from going.
  28. Arrive early. Most theatres have a “late seating policy” to prevent latecomers from getting in the way of the production and distracting the actors and audience. If you arrive late you may have to wait to enter until a specified time. You may have to sit or stand in the back of the theatre until intermission regardless of your assigned seats. You may have to watch a portion of the show on a television monitor in the lobby. Avoid these frustrations and plan to arrive a little early.
  29. Flickering the lobby and house lights means it’s time to take your seat. Do so promptly.
  30. Silence your cell phones. Unlike at the movies where your phone will only annoy your fellow audience members, at a play you are annoying the performers as well. Turn it off. Then check to be sure you turned it off.
  31. Also silence anything else that might make noise, says someone with a friend with a watch that crows like a rooster at inopportune times.
  32. Don’t text during the performance either. The lighted screen is as distracting as a phone ringing.
  33. Unauthorized filming and photography are rarely allowed due to union rules and royalty agreements. Plus it’s distracting to those around you.
  34. Please don’t talk (even if you are whispering) during the performance. My husband and I once sat in front of Chris Matthews at a show in Washington, D.C. We were well aware of his presence because he didn’t stop talking.
  35. Do laugh out loud if things are funny. There’s nothing more pitiful than a stage manager trying to convince a cast that “The audience is loving it. They’re just quiet.” Live theatre is about feedback. Let the actors know if you are have a good time.
  36. If you are sensitive to strobe lights, loud noises (E.G. gunshots) or anything else you may want to ask the box office if such effects are used before you buy tickets. There will be warning signs posted in the lobby if applicable, but that’s a little late if you’ve already been planning on a night out.
  37. Most theatres have some sort of concessions or bar, but they often only accept cash. Plan accordingly.
  38. Find out if food and drink are allowed in the theatre before buying something at pre-show or intermission. Some theatres are becoming more lenient about this, but it’s best to find out before having to chug a full cup of super hot coffee. (I’ve done it. It’s not fun.)
  39. Standing ovations are not obligatory even though they often seem to be. Here is a great editorial from the New York Times calling for a stop to “ovation inflation,” and I agree.
  40. Do stay and applaud. Walking out before the cast has finished curtain call is rude.

Enjoy the show!

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