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1.3: Performance Etiquette

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    Theatre, as an art form, has been a part of western society for well over 2000 years. With early productions calling for the gods to descend from above, technical theatre practitioners were an early addition to the performers. With all that history, it is hardly surprising that many rules and traditions are a part of the culture. Some of these rules make sense, or at least did when they came to be part of the tradition, while others are shrouded in mystery regarding the source or reasons. Regardless of origin, technical theatre practitioners should be aware of them. This chapter will explore many of the rules, traditions and etiquette to be practiced backstage as part of a production.


    There are numerous traditions in the theatre. Many of these are more involved with the actors, but it is important that technicians respect and honor them as well.

    • The play “Macbeth” is not mentioned by name in the theatre. It is typically referred to as “The Scottish Play”
    • The cast and crew wish each other “Break a Leg!” instead of “Good Luck”
    • No whistling is allowed backstage. This tradition comes from the days before modern communication systems when the crew members would signal rigging cues (among other cues) with specific whistles.
    • Real money, jewelry or ostrich feathers should not be used as stage props or costumes.
    • Flowers and other gifts should be given after the curtain falls on opening night, not before. Even if the gifts are delivered in advance, tradition dictates that they should not be opened or enjoyed until after the curtain has come down at the end of the performance.

    Various theatres and theatre companies of additional traditions. It is a good idea to respect these traditions. For example, some theatres have a “no talking for the thirty minutes prior to the start of the show.” The practical application of this is that everyone is left on their own to concentrate and prepare for the upcoming performance. Observant technicians will quickly learn the local traditions wherever they are working.


    What distinguishes rules from tradition and etiquette is that absolutely must be followed. Rules are about safety and the smooth running of a performance.

    • When you arrive, sign in, and don’t leave until the show is over. Most theatres have a sign in sheet. It is how the stage manager makes sure everyone is there for a performance. A corollary rule is that you should never sign someone else in, or ask someone else to sign you in.
    • No one, except the stage manager, is allowed to use the word “Go” on the backstage communication system (com). The word “Go” indicates that technicians should execute their cue. If someone else says “Go” a technician might take a cue at the wrong time.
    • No talking on com after a stage manager says “stand-by.” Stage managers will alert technicians of an upcoming cue by saying “stand-by cue X.” At that point, everyone on com must be quiet so the technician(s) can hear and react to the fast approaching “Go”
    • Don’t touch any stage equipment, properties, costumes etc. that are not your responsibility. Many of the things we use in theatre may look like an ordinary everyday item, but often they are specially made or set up for their uses on stage. Playing with items that you have not been trained on can have disastrous effects.
    • Treat all prop weapons as if they were real and (in the case of guns) loaded.
    • Cell phones should be turned off. Running a show takes great concentration, and any distractions will harm the quality of the show.
    • In the event of having to choose between executing a cue correctly or safely, always choose the safest option. Theatrical events are live, meaning things can a do go differently than planned. It is important for technicians to be aware of what is happening on stage and off stage and how the crew member’s actions will affect it. It is not uncommon for a technician to have a more accurate view of the safety of the situation than the stage manager. Safety issues should always be addressed as soon as possible, and especially before someone is injured.
    • Don’t show the audience how the sausage is made. This rule has taken on greater significance since the rise of social media. The show you are working on may have a super-secret special effect or surprise. If so, don’t take pictures of it for social media and don’t discuss it with audience members. If you are working on some shows, such as an illusionist’s performance, you will have to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) saying you won’t reveal how the magic is done. Also, putting a show together is stressful, mistakes happen and things go badly. No matter how funny or rude or whatever an incident is, if it happened where the audience couldn’t see it, it should not be discussed or shared with the general public.


    Etiquette is the concept of correct behavior in society. I like to treat Etiquette guides as rules. The difference is that if I break and etiquette guideline, I may look foolish, but the show should still proceed.

    • Assume anything you say on com can be heard by everyone in the theatre. It is not uncommon for extra com units to be around the theatre and for those not on the crew to be able to hear what is said. In fact, it is a good idea to only talk about show critical things on the com system
    • Assume anything you say on stage can be overheard by everybody in the theatre. Most theatres have some sort of audio monitor that takes the sound form the stage and plays it in key backstage areas (like the dressing rooms). You can never be sure when it is on or off.
    • Always arrive at the theatre at least 5 minutes early. The “call time,” the time you are scheduled to start work, is the time the production expects you in your place completely prepared to work. Walking in the door at call time, and having to change clothes or get your tools is wasting the production’s time.
    • Anytime the stage management team gives you specific information about the show, especially how many minutes to places, the correct response is “thank you.”

    Some Other Guidelines to the Entertainment industry

    The technical theatre industry is an exceedingly tight knit group of individuals. When joining a new company, many technicians find that they are working with friends of friends. Word gets around quickly about bad technicians, technicians who are hard to work with, and technicians that are not team players. It is also an industry where most work is short term – the length of time of the project. This means employment might be a few weeks to a few months. Gigs that last years are comparatively rare. Technicians should be at all times professional people who others wish to work with. The book will look at techniques for applying for work in a later chapter, but many opportunities come through people you have worked with in the past recommending you to producers or other employers. The other thing that has constantly surprised me in the industry is how a person in a lowly assistant position can suddenly be the person making hiring decisions. Equally as amazing is how a person who was the head of one project is suddenly back working as an assistant. None of these apparent promotions or demotions means anything more than it is now a different project with a different mix of people. I used to work with one designer on a regular basis. Frequently, I would assist her on a show, occasionally she would work as my assistant. Building good professional relationships with everyone you meet is a great asset. Additionally, learning the skills of people you have enjoyed working with is very beneficial, because some day you will be working on a project that needs a key person with a specific skill. If the person who fills that need is someone you have contact information for, you will have saved the current production, and you will have the joy of working with someone you know and respect.

    Additional Materials

    8 Rules Every Theatre Professional Mus Follow

    This page titled 1.3: Performance Etiquette is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Christopher R Boltz.

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