Laura Matey, executive assistant and company manager at Signature Theatre, shows off some annoying habits that theater patrons have. (Andre Chung for The Washington Post)

Our era’s curse is the cellphone, but theaters have a long tradition as rowdy places. In ­17th-century France, Molière had to tolerate cocky, talkative VIPs who insisted on sitting on the stage. That was common in London, too.

Food, especially fruits and nuts, used to be sold inside theaters, which meant audiences had something to throw at the stage whenever they felt like expressing a bit of ­high-velocity criticism.

And prostitutes! Let’s not forget the working women who used to drum up business in the stalls and galleries.

“Fifteen years ago our theaters were tumultuous places,” Denis Diderot wrote in 1758, fretting that guards — yes, it came to that — were turning unruly Paris stages into “resorts more peaceful and respectful than our churches.”

Our own mayhem is subtler — except, maybe, when an actor leaps from the stage to attack a heckler, which happened over the summer in California. Santa Clara’s Repertory East Company was performing Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and someone in the audience began making homophobic comments about the repressed character Brick. The actor playing Big Daddy took after the heckler and was fired for it. The performer playing Brick quit in solidarity. The rest of the run was scrapped.

Then there was the notorious 2013 University of Mississippi incident with a largely student audience ridiculing the gay figures of the “The Laramie Project,” which chronicles the 1998 murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. The jeering not only shattered etiquette but also challenged civil rights; the scandal quickly went national, with widespread backing for the actors.

[Etiquette in the arts: How to behave in the digital age]

“All of a sudden, there was a sense of empowerment in the cast, where they felt the support of the greater community,” the show’s director told the Jackson Free Press. “The performances were just electric.” Civility won.

“Performance is a time to think inwardly, not a time to share your thoughts aloud,” instructs the etiquette guide posted by the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre, in Indiana, and, for people who have paid good money and invested valuable time only to be irritated by chatterers (let alone snorers), this bedrock principle can’t be restated often enough.

Still, that’s just scratching the surface of potential distractions. The guides alert us:

“Come clean,” advises New York Show Tickets in a note to both the dirty tourist and the Manhattan gym rat. “Try to make time for a shower before arriving at the theater.”

Matey eats candy straight from the wrapper while wearing an obnoxiously large hat — two things people at theaters can be found guilty of doing. (Andre Chung for The Washington Post)

From the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend, Ind.: “Please consider the people that will be seated behind you when choosing whether or not to wear a hat or what hair style you choose.” Also, with alarming grammar: “Take care of personal needs (drinks of water or restroom) because you should not leave your seat until the intermission or until the performance ends.”

Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company teaches audiences, “React to what’s happening on stage.”

They have yet to include this gentle guidance: Please do not throw up on Washington Post critics. (It happened there.)

Surely, everyone knows it’s rude to rattle wrappers during a show, yet a minor Twizzlers incident upstaged Al Pacino during a 2013 New York performance of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” and prompted the breathless headline, “The Great Fight Way: Broadway Audiences Are Behaving Badly, and Someone Is Going to Get Hurt.”

But the particular bane of our age is the cellphone. In April, Madonna reportedly texted through the second act of the hit off-Broadway musical “Hamilton,” prompting the show’s star and writer Lin-Manuel Miranda to ban Madge from backstage. Hugh Jackman stopped one of his 2009 Broadway performances of “A Steady Rain” with Daniel Craig and stood hands on hips as he told an audience member to turn the bloomin’ thing off. Actress Laura Linney has said that casts now discuss ahead of time what to do when the inevitable cellphone incidents occur.

The most sensational option, of course, is to go ballistic, a la Patti LuPone.

“I have to say this: We have forgotten our public manners,” an inflamed LuPone told a crowd after stopping a performance of “Gypsy” to have a picture-taker thrown out. This was in 2009, when LuPone became the poster diva of “Don’t do that! Don’t make me stop this show!” Only months after “Gypsy” closed on Broadway, she interrupted another performance in Las Vegas to cross-examine an audience member using a phone. When the New York Times characterized the star’s behavior as a trifle touchy, LuPone fired back in a letter.

“This has been going on in my career for 30 years since I starred in ‘Evita,’ and, you’re surprised I stop shows now?” she wrote.

Thirty years predates the “smart” phone, which still hasn’t learned modern theater audience etiquette. (“People” appear to be a poor app for that.) That underscores the bigger point: We are an intuitively restless species. In a crowd, someone is always distracted or out of step. Theaters used to be raucous because they were public squares, places to display one’s privileged self sitting on the stage or to shout as you stood in the pit. The distractions are different now because we’ve evolved into electronic palmists anxious to instant-share and nervous about ever disconnecting.

LuPone’s “Gypsy” tirade is a masterpiece of performer’s pique. On YouTube, you can hear LuPone revving into “Rose’s Turn,” her energy in full throttle, when suddenly she shouts the orchestra to a halt. In a voice that could crack an ocean liner’s hull, she roars at a picture-taker in the audience, “How dare you! Who do you think you are? Get them out!”

The cheers are Olympian. The audience is fully behind her. It had to be said.

The irony that LuPone’s righteous tirade is preserved by an illicit recording? Priceless.

Read our critics’ takes on etiquette in their respective fields:

- Hornaday: Improving manners at the movies

- Sietsema: Hoping to have a good dinner? Be a good diner.

- Kaufman: Dance audiences are too caught up in the performance to be rude

- Richards: How to not be a jerk at a concert

- Kennicott: At museums, selfie sticks poke holes in the idea of anything goes

-Kaufman: Dance audiences are too caught up in the performance to be rude


Take a shower before arriving at the theater.

Your hat or hairstyle could affect the viewers behind you. Be considerate.

Take care of personal needs (drinks of water or the restroom) before the show.

Don’t chew on candy obnoxiously.

Never use your phone during a performance.