‘I’ve been spat at’: half of UK theatre staff consider quitting over audience behaviour

·5-min read

UK theatre staff have been attacked, sexually harassed and abused by drunken audience members during performances, a new survey has revealed.

Front of house staff facing violent assaults, theatregoers urinating in fire exits and mass brawls breaking out in auditoriums were among the incidents uncovered by the report from the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre union (Bectu).

With fears that antisocial behaviour at shows is on the rise, it has called for venues across the UK to sign up to a new charter to help protect workers.

Almost 90% of theatre staff said that they had experienced or witnessed bad audience behaviour, while more than 70% believed the issue has worsened since the Covid pandemic.

Shockingly, nearly one-third of respondents said they had been involved in or witnessed an incident where a venue had to call the police, with 20% having feared for their safety at least once.

“I have been physically assaulted by a patron who then caused further problems while security tried to remove her,” an anonymous theatre worker said. “I couldn’t come in to work for a while due to the effect it had on me and then, even longer still, I couldn’t go into the auditorium.”

Another said: “The younger women in my theatre, including myself, were regularly sexually harassed by male audience members. We had to introduce a code word to be used in radio communications as we felt so unsafe.”

A common theme among theatre staff was dealing with drunk audience members, with the police having to be called out to venues in many cases. One worker said: “A brawl broke out at a jukebox musical involving 20 or so drunk people. [It was] a dispute over some people singing along to the show. Security, police and ambulances [were] involved.”

More than 1,500 theatre staff – including those working in front of house, hospitality, box office, stage door, sound and lighting – took part in the survey, with respondents working across all types of shows. Almost half (45%) said they had considered leaving the industry due to poor audience behaviour.

One worker, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that they believe theatregoers drinking alcohol before arriving for shows was a big reason for disorder. “Because the price of drinks is high, people tend to come preloaded or smuggle things in,” they said, adding that the worst offenders included hen parties.

“We’ve had people refusing to leave, people hitting the fire alarm on their way out. There’s been assaults, too; staff being grabbed, swung for and even, on occasion, people acting inappropriately and being creepy.”

Philippa Childs, head of Bectu, said the survey demonstrated that bad and aggressive behaviour was not limited to any one type of theatre and is happening across all forms of performing arts, including opera and ballet.

“I’m shocked by the number of incidents and the extreme nature of some of them,” she said. “It is now very clear that there is an issue, which the industry needs to address and take steps to resolve.

“Some of the lowest-paid people work in the industry. Nobody should go to work and face those issues. It is really concerning to me that people think this is acceptable when they go for a night out.

“The threats of physical violence are particularly worrying, although none of the things described should be happening. We are really concerned for the health and safety of our members.”

One of the key findings in the report was 90% of theatre workers feeling people arriving to shows drunk was a contributing factor in declining audience behaviour.

Childs said: “I’m sure quite a lot of it is drink-related. When people are intoxicated, their barriers come down and they behave in a way that they wouldn’t normally. I do also think more broadly there is an issue about how society speaks to people in public-facing roles.

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“I don’t know if it is post-pandemic rage but it does seem that people have forgotten how to be nice and respectful when people are at work.”

She added that venues and theatre management companies ought to do more to “set clear expectations” of what is expected from audiences, with other issues raised including theatregoers filming, talking loudly and rustling sweet packets during performances.

Bectu is launching a Safer Theatres Charter in the UK, demanding theatre management companies do more “to provide a safe environment for audiences and workers”.

Venues are being asked to commit to five pledges, including making announcements before shows and on tickets about behavioural standards expected from audiences, publishing risk assessments relating to safe alcohol consumption in theatres and enforcing a zero-tolerance policy on antisocial behaviour.

It is also calling for theatre management companies to provide staff with necessary training and to ensure “adequate and safe staffing levels”.

Five responses from the survey

“I have been spat at for refusing entry – their group did not have enough tickets for the performance and we did not have any available seats to put them in.”

“My colleague was punched in the back of her leg while trying to assist a drunk person with getting out of their seat. She was then threatened and almost choked.”

“Sexually assaulted by a patron. I have been kissed on my neck by a very drunk patron.”

“Been scared to walk to my car after a shift as customers told me they would wait for me. Had my staff abused and racially abused. Mostly for telling people to stop singing or because people were drunk or had taken illegal substances.”

“People have stated that because of how expensive their ticket was they are ‘entitled’ to act in a certain way.”