Today’s feature is the next installment of my Theatre Wars series, which looks at the battle for good etiquette in theatre. Today’s issue of contention: coughing in the theatre. To which I groan, hence the title.
And yes, I’m annoyed I didn’t think of ‘Attack of the Phones’ before doing the first one on phones. Because that title is much better.
I think we’ve all experienced this: it’s the climactic scene of a show, the tension is heightened, the audience is holding their breath. Except that one person who isn’t holding their breath. Instead they’re exhaling it. Loudly. In a cough. Right on the crucial line. ‘Because you’re my *COUGH COUGH COUGH*’ And once one person goes, it’s a free for all: a Mexican wave of coughing.
Just to make it clear from the outset, I’m not condemning every little cough. I’m not that much a pedant, sitting there counting every single cough and glaring intensely at the perpetrator. Because then you spend more time listening to the audience than the play. I’m talking about the loud, continuous ones which mean you physically can’t hear the play. They are incredibly disruptive, not just for audiences but the actors themselves. Earlier this year, I saw The Master Builder at the Old Vic and not one scene went past without coughs erupting. I get that it was winter, prime season for coughs. But it was a three hour show. It was a lot of coughing. Arguably, it’s less of a problem with musicals, as most people have the common sense to cough during applause or loud number. But in plays, there’s no real break from dialogue.
My annoyance may raise a few eyebrows. A cough? It’s an involuntary reaction, you can’t help if you cough, whereas when people use their phone in the theatre, that’s a conscious decision. You’re consciously deciding to be a dick. But coughing?
Here’s the thing though: it is a conscious decision.
If you have a cold or a cough which is so bad that you’re have to cough every few minutes, number 1: poor you. If you know you’re going to the theatre and still decide to go and sit in an often stuffy room which is either too hot or too cold which may involve fog or staged smoke, number 2: poor other members of the audience. And stupid you. Seriously, if you are that ill, do both yourself and everyone else a favour: don’t go. Back in February, I had to cancel going to three shows because of my cough. I could’ve gone, but I chose not to. Because I didn’t want to ruin anyone else’s experience.
I’m not saying anyone who is ill shouldn’t go to the theatre. But just put yourself in the actors’ shoes: imagine you’re trying to have a conversation with someone and someone is coughing in your ear repeatedly. Now imagine putting up with that for three hours.