Brawls, vandalism, racial abuse: Bectu survey reveals extreme audience behaviour in UK theatres

29 March 2023

A new survey from theatre union Bectu has uncovered the extent of anti-social behaviour from theatre audiences, with many respondents agreeing it has worsened and become more extreme in nature following the pandemic.

From public urination and physical assaults to verbal abuse and intimidation, more than 1,500 people working in theatrical venues across the UK shared their experiences of anti-social behaviour. Responses came from those predominantly working in front of house, hospitality, box office, and stage door roles, as well as technical roles like sound and lighting.

90 per cent of respondents reported having directly experienced or witnessed poor audience behaviour, and more than 70 per cent felt that the issue is worse post-pandemic. Nearly half of respondents said they had thought about leaving the industry as a result.

Respondents work in and for a variety of venues and shows, including jukebox musicals, comedy shows, plays, pantomime, opera and ballet.

Incidents reported range from physical aggression; threats of violence; sexual harassment or assault; mass brawls; assaults on staff or other members of the audience; defacing or damaging venues; racial slurs; and more.

Overwhelmingly, the survey found bullying, violence, intimidation, harassment or abuse of staff is the most common form of poor audience behaviour – over 90 per cent reported personal experience of this type of behaviour.

This was followed by violence, abuse, discrimination, intimidation or harassment of staff or audience members based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability or another protected characteristic.

Other issues commonly reported were general disorderly, unsafe, intoxicated or lewd behaviour; inappropriate use of mobile phones; and vandalism to a venue.

While reported incidents against staff were found to be most common and frequent, the survey reveals that violent and anti-social behaviour towards fellow audience members is also common.

While many respondents pointed to changes in behaviours post-pandemic, a sense of audience entitlement and a marked lack of concern for others’ ability to enjoy their experience, many also felt that venue management had insufficient will, policies or resources to adequately deal with the issue.

Intoxication stood out as a key factor, with 90 per cent of respondents agreeing that people arriving at venues under the influence of alcohol or other substances contributes to poor behaviour.

Other key findings include:

  • Almost 30 per cent of respondents have been involved in or witnessed an incident where a venue had to call the police
  • Nearly 20 per cent have feared for their safety on at least one occasion and 20 per cent reported negative impacts on their mental health
  • More than 80 per cent felt that people working in a customer-facing role need more training and support to deal with poor audience behaviour
  • 78 per cent thought more external security was necessary to help deal with audience behaviour
  • 45 per cent have considered leaving the industry due to poor audience behaviour

Following the survey, Bectu has formed a ‘safer theatres charter’, which calls on venue management to take a more proactive, thorough and zero-tolerance approach to anti-social audience behaviour. Supporters can sign the charter here.

The union will also shortly launch a campaign to tackle poor audience behaviour.

Commenting, Head of Bectu Philippa Childs said:

“Our findings are a resounding call for the industry to do better by its workers, and for audiences to consider and amend their behaviour. The scale and nature of many of the instances reported is deeply disturbing and we will be working with the industry to do all we can to drive urgent and tangible change.

“What is clear from these responses is that these instances are neither rare nor isolated, nor are they relegated to a certain type of performance or geographical location. Across the country people are facing regular aggression and abuse simply for carrying out their jobs. This is wholly unacceptable and we urge venues and industry bodies to commit to working with us to tackle this endemic issue.

“What we’ve uncovered is that anti-social behaviour extends far beyond relatively minor issues of someone talking during a performance or playing on their mobile phone. People are coming to work fearing for their safety and dealing with behaviour no one should have to put up with.

“Everyone has the right to a safe and respectful workplace and with the sector facing a chronic skills shortage, the fact that nearly half of respondents have considered leaving the industry because of anti-social behaviour should sound alarm bells. Many of these workers are already battling long hours and low pay and urgent action is needed to avoid a worsening talent drain.”

Find out more about the survey findings. Read more

We heard from over 1,500 people about what it’s like to work in UK theatres

Read some of their experiences.
Read here

Do you support safer theatres for audiences and theatre workers?

Sign the Safer Theatres Charter to help us.
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