Tics in the Theatre: The ‘Quiet Audience’ and the Neurodivergent Spectator

Do you get annoyed when people rustle their crisp packets or check their mobile phones in the theatre? If so you’re probably not alone – but you might be surprised to learn that the convention that audiences should be quiet is a relatively new one. It’s also a norm that may exclude spectators who can’t help but fidget and make noise. Hannah Simpson (University of Oxford) invites us to think carefully about how the etiquette of the theatre might be made more inclusive, with benefits for everyone. A transcript of this talk is also available.

It’s not unusual to hear people complaining about modern theatre audience etiquette. Benedict Cumberbatch made headlines in 2015 when he asked that fans to stop using their mobile phones at the Barbican Centre, Richard Griffiths has ejected spectators from the National Theatre, and the Theatre Charter, supported by no less than Stephen Fry, encourages audiences to police each other in bad spectator habits such as fidgeting, talking, and leaving the auditorium during the performance. So keen is our sense of the need for respectful silence that the modern spectator quickly forgets that the concept of the ‘quiet’ audience is a very new and very historically atypical one.

The modern spectator might also forget how the cult of the ‘quiet audience’ challenges the neurodivergent spectator, who cannot guarantee that her body will remain passively quiet during a performance. If the rustle of sweet papers or whispered comments are thought so disruptive, then what of the still more pronounced noises and movements of the neurodivergent spectator: the verbal tic or motor convulsion of the individual with Tourette’s syndrome, the self-comforting rocking of the child with autism, or the rushed exit of the individual in the grip of a PTSD flashback? In short, how does our new modern focus on audience etiquette challenge neurodiverse individuals from accessing the theatre? And how would re-establishing a ‘relaxed audience’ affect the potential of the theatre auditorium as a public sphere?

This podcast, which was recorded during our series of Late Summer Lectures 2017, charts the change in accepted spectator behaviour, using written, drawn and filmed archival sources to explain the establishment of the modern ‘quiet audience’. It calls for a change in our modern theatre etiquette, with a particular focus on Relaxed Performance. It ends by theorising how changing our expectations of audience behaviour once again could re-stimulate a new phenomenological experience of the theatre, with striking affective and political consequences.

This podcast was recorded during the series Late Summer Lectures in 2017. Listen to other lectures from the series here:

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