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L.A. theater etiquette ... for the uninitiated

May 23, 2009 |  8:00 am

 Audience 

Anyone who's attended theater in Los Angeles knows what a strange and disorienting experience it can be. Not unlike New York and London, L.A. contains hundreds of professional stages of all sizes, from glamorous palaces to dumpy little buildings in the middle of nowhere.

The true idiosyncrasies, however, are to be found in audience behavior, which can be especially alienating.

Every city has its own theater etiquette but in the ultra-relaxed atmosphere of Southern California, the unspoken rules are particularly difficult to decipher, thanks in part to the sprawling, decentralized nature of the theatergoing population.

What is considered rude and what is acceptable? (The answers may surprise you.) Also, what do you do when you see a celebrity sitting next to you? Is it alright to acknowledge him or her?

Carrie Dunn at the Guardian in London recently posted a West End etiquette guide, and we at Culture Monster were inspired to formulate a similar list adapted for the L.A. theater scene.

Keep reading for the rundown ...

Late arrivals: Get used to it, especially at big theaters like the Ahmanson, the Kodak and the Pantages. It's not uncommon to see people streaming in 20 or 30 minutes into a show. The reason is simple: traffic. Plus the bottlenecks to the parking garages. And there are always bottlenecks.

Speaking of traffic: Plan accordingly. And then add an extra 15 minutes. And 15 more to find parking.

Talking during the show: In New York, you can expect dirty looks and even verbal reprimands if you so much as open your mouth during a performance. In L.A., it's less of a sin. We've sat through performances where audiences have chattered and no one complained. Trust us, you learn very quickly to filter.

Texting during the show: Not acceptable in New York, but in L.A. the rules are more ambiguous. Technically, you're supposed to turn off all mobile devices, but in our experience, many people don't. Did we mention how annoying the light of a BlackBerry is in a dark theater?

Walkouts: Voting with your feet is universal and in L.A., we exercise our right with a vengeance. And it's not just because we don't like what's on stage. People start streaming out well before curtain call as a way to avoid the inevitable traffic jam in the parking garage.

Ahmanson Standing ovations: Like grade inflation, they are everywhere, even for the worst of shows. But it seems to us that most of the time people are just jumping to their feet so they can leave quickly to get to the parking lot.

Celebrity sightings: Theater in L.A. is a good place to see celebrities, pretending they don't want to be seen but going out of their way to be seen. Should you approach them? In our experience, we've found them to be more receptive to fans than in New York. So go ahead, tell them that you love their work.

"Please unwrap your candy now": It stopped being funny years ago, but somehow it keeps getting a laugh here. Of course, you can still expect people to unwrap their lozenges during the show.

The national anthem: It pays to know the words. On opening night of each season at venues like the Hollywood Bowl and the Music Center, the audience rises to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner." As one friend elegantly put it: "They do that here."

-- David Ng

Illustration by Eric Hanson.

Photo: Ahmanson Theatre in downtown L.A. Credit: Center Theatre Group

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