Myths vs. Truths with Theater Etiquette

Inside the Theater

Reynolds Hall Stage


As Southern Nevadans await the day they can return to The Smith Center, this offers an ideal time to brush up on theater etiquette — as well as dispel common etiquette myths.

And it doesn’t hurt to explore the fascinating history behind theater etiquette traditions.

Below, community members can sharpen their theater knowledge with just a few dispelled myths.

These can also help audience members fully enjoy music, theater and dance performances at The Smith Center when they return.


Myth: Audiences should never clap between movements during classical music performances.
Truth: Audiences can clap when they like what they hear.

Hundreds of years ago, during the age of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart, audiences were welcome to applaud between movements – and whenever else they felt like it.

In fact, if audiences didn’t applaud between movements, composers would likely take offense.

In the early 19th century, however, some European composers such as Felix Mendelssohn pushed for audiences to remain silent until the end of a piece, to avoid long interruptions. Some Parisian venues even hired clappers — people strategically placed in the audience to clap only when appropriate, to show audiences what they were supposed to do.

A strict protocol against clapping was adopted after 1945, which many attribute to the advent of radio. Audiences at broadcasted performances were requested not to clap in between movements, so radio listeners could hear the full piece without any interruption.

Today, many strive to reverse this trend. Conductors and composers worldwide insist they prefer audiences show their appreciation with applause whenever they wish.


Myth: The dress code for theater performances is formalwear, only.
Truth: While formalwear is welcome, The Smith Center and theaters worldwide encourage guests to dress as they feel appropriate for a special occasion — with no official dress code.

Dress codes haven’t existed as a common tradition in theater history.

In the Elizabethan age when English theaters thrived, for instance, venues attracted a mix of the very poor and very wealthy. The upper classes wore all of their finery in an effort to be seen and admired, while the poor simply wore what little they had.

During the 20th century, attending the theater became tied to high culture, and dressing formally became standard. While this remained common even decades ago, societal standards eventually changed and theaters relaxed their policies.
Now in theaters spanning Broadway, the West End and beyond, strict dress codes have become a rarity.


Myth: Soft conversing during a performance is acceptable.
Truth: When the lights dim, theaters request audience members to remain silent in respect of others.

History: Protocols for audience behavior have changed dramatically throughout theater history.

Ancient Greek audiences were often unruly, and would drum their heels loudly if they disliked a performance. During the age of Shakespeare, audience members could walk around, eat and drink during a performance. They also often cheered, booed and occasionally pelted objects at the actors.

The 19th century saw a European movement to establish more ornate performance venues. This coincided with a strong push to organize and manage audience behavior.

No-speaking policies can be found worldwide. This remains a high priority at Japanese Kabuki theaters, for example, as performances of this traditional artform never use microphones.


Myth: Audiences can come and go for bathroom breaks throughout a performance.
Truth: Theaters request audience take bathroom breaks before a show, or during intermission.

History: Bathroom breaks have come a long way in theater history.

In the performance-rich years of the Elizabethan age, theatergoers with the cheapest tickets had few comforts. With no seats, they stood for performances lasting three hours — with no bathroom facilities.

A bucket was simply passed around, which patrons used during the show in front of hundreds of other audience members.

During the beginnings of Japanese Kabuki theater in the 1600s, initial performances took place on a makeshift theater in a dry riverbed in Kyoto. Audience members relieved themselves wherever they pleased in the great outdoors.

Following the advent of indoor plumbing — and new standards of audience courtesy in the 19th century — theaters request that guests not interrupt performances for bathroom breaks.