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  • Tics in the Theatre: The Quiet Audience, the Relaxed Performance, and the Neurodivergent Spectator
  • Hannah Simpson (bio)

It is not unusual to hear people complaining about audience etiquette.1 Benedict Cumberbatch made headlines in 2015 when he asked that fans refrain from filming him in Hamlet at the Barbican Centre; “nothing,” he said, was “less supportive” (Denham n.p.). Oliver Burkeman penned an entire Guardian editorial on the horrors of noisy fellow spectators, cheerfully recalling an usher “who lectured the noisemakers so forcibly and successfully” that the very memory can still, he confesses, “thrill” him (n.p.). So keen is the modern sense of the need for respectful silence, so swift is the modern spectator to condemn those who contravene established theatre etiquette, that one might quickly forget that the concept of the quiet or invisible audience is both a recent and a historically atypical one.

As a result, it is also easy for the modern spectator to forget how the cult of the quiet audience presents a sometimes insurmountable challenge to the neurodivergent spectator, whose cognitive and/or physical functioning may mean that she cannot guarantee that her body will remain quiet during the length of a performance. Alongside what Max Barton calls “audience attitudes that are potentially linked to disrespect, such as heckling, using phones and crackling sweet and crisp packets” (n.p.), other audience noise that signals only an alternatively functioning body is often condemned as equally inappropriate or disrespectful in the theatre auditorium: the verbal tic or motor convulsion of the person with Tourette’s syndrome, the repetitive tapping of the individual with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or the self-comforting rocking of the autistic child. Partially as a result of such stringent policing of quiet-audience etiquette, individuals with a disability or long-term illness have significantly lower rates of arts attendance than others (Smith 40). The acceptance of quiet-audience etiquette as theatrical norm radically decreases the auditorium’s accessibility.

However, the neurodivergent spectator’s presence in the auditorium offers a new perspective on theatre’s value as an embodied communal event. This essay begins by tracing how the modern prioritizing of the quiet audience has prevented neurodivergent individuals from accessing theatre spaces. It then uses this grounding to explore how reestablishing the “relaxed audience” as an institutional norm might affect the potential of the theatre auditorium as a public sphere. Rethinking quiet-audience etiquette not only benefits the neurodivergent spectator who might otherwise struggle to access the mainstream theatre auditorium, but it also places a renewed emphasis on the theatre’s fundamental construction as a live, embodied encounter with other individuals.

Intolerance and Inaccessibility: The Quiet Audience

The concept of the quiet audience is a distinctly modern phenomenon, although the precise historical moment of this change is more in dispute.2 Some of the clearest examples of the British theatre audience being explicitly trained in a new quiet etiquette, however, can be pinpointed in 1950s mainstream UK theatre onwards. A combination of class and generational anxieties in the long postwar period in Britain saw audience etiquette being not only fiercely policed, but also being carefully [End Page 227] taught, with instruction on quiet-audience etiquette coming from theatre venues, practitioners, and media critics. The British Drama League sent major celebrities of the time to lecture the public in the new theatre etiquette. Both Richard Burton and Sybil Thorndike instructed schoolchildren that it was no longer acceptable to consume food in the theatre, in contrast to the habits of their parents (“Should Audiences Eat Chocolate?”). In 1963, the Royal Festival Hall included “The Plain Man’s Guide to Coughing” in its program, warning that “a single unrestrained cough” could “effectively ruin the enjoyment of three thousand listeners” (n.p.). Barton reflects on “the sense that the theatre is a club, that it comes with . . . a series of rules and with the risk of being judged” (n.p.); here, we find this “series of rules” concerning auditorium behavior being laid down unambiguously in UK theatre institutions.

This instruction in respectful silence as the correct theatre etiquette has lasted from the 1950s into present-day Britain. However, in contrast to the explicit 1950s instruction by theatre venues...