mark toland

How To Watch A Show

So you got a Groupon to a big show tonight? Or a half price ticket? Or won them in a raffle? You read about something cool on TripAdvisor? Or just Googled “something fun to do on a Thursday”?


Now you just show up and hang out, yeah? It’s just like going to a bar or restaurant or hanging out with friends, right?

Not quite. There’s a little more to it than that.

And, since it seems an overwhelming amount of people in Chicago audiences aren’t sure how to watch a show (I once saw someone texting during HAMILTON!) I’ve put together a handy checklist for you to make sure you blend in with the true theater-goers.

Follow these steps and you’ll be a great audience member in no time at all…

  1. Dress Up - Do it! Chances are you’re on a date or a work event or out with friends. Maybe you’ll take a picture as a couple or a selfie with the performers. You might even get dinner before. A little effort won’t kill you, right? I’m not talking a tuxedo or ball gown - just maybe leave the ripped jeans and flip flops at home. Plus, it just feels good to dress up, get out of the house, and do something new and exciting.

  2. Get There Early - Doors open at 7? Great, you should probably be there a little earlier. There will be lines and delays happen. If you’re driving, parking will probably be an issue. Public transportation isn’t always reliable either, so give yourself some extra time. When you show up late and you’re not allowed to enter the show, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

  3. Turn Your Phone Off - Seriously, turn your phone off. Not vibrate, not airplane mode. Turn it ALL THE WAY OFF. Don’t text or tweet. The screen lights up your face. It’s annoying for performers and for the people around you. Also, most theaters don’t allow photos or videos, and why would you want those anyway? You’re never going to watch that shaky, blurry, 30 minute vertical video of the show you just watched. Plus, you never want to be the one person who has to frantically search for their phone to silence it in the middle of an act. (I can’t speak for other performers, but do that at mine and I’ll be forced to reveal your deepest, darkest, most personal secrets.)

  4. Don’t Check Your Phone - “How can I check my phone if it’s turned off?”, I hear you say. I’ll tell you how. The show reaches intermission or you need to go to the restroom. You switch on your phone to fill the time and suddenly you’re back in 2019 scrolling Instagram and mindlessly texting your friends. You forget that a moment ago you were watching the founding fathers rap and getting wrapped up yourself. The second you turn on your phone you’ve cheated yourself of that experience. You’ve ruined the feeling those performers have worked hard to create. Don’t do it! Keep your phone off and get lost in the show. I promise it’s worth it!

  5. Don’t Talk - It’s one thing to react to something during a show. Leaning over to your significant other to say “That’s so true!” is quite different from having a full-blown conversation mid-show. I’ve seen people take phone calls, yell to people at the other end of the row, and talk loudly the whole way through a performance. Please don’t! Your whispered chatter carries through the space. It’s hard to deal with as a performer and incredibly disrespectful to the people around you. Every time I go to the movies I have to ask at least one person to stop talking. Don’t be that person.

  6. It’s Not All About You - You may be celebrating an anniversary or a bachelorette party or a birthday. You might be on a first date or out with your entire office. However, unless you’ve paid for a private performance, there are other people in the audience who bought a ticket for the same show you’re seeing. It’s not all about you. Sure, have a good time - laugh, cry, enjoy the show - but don’t let your enjoyment overwhelm the enjoyment of others. This is supposed to be an inclusive experience. Theater brings people together so don’t let your energy become too much that it pulls the audience apart.

I’m not just a performer - I’m a theatre lover.

I see a lot of shows - A LOT of theatre. My wife and I try to catch as many shows as possible. We go to the movies 1-2 times a week. We attend local discussions, theatrical premieres, musicals, improv shows, and concerts.

It’s how we spent our date nights in college and it’s our favorite way to spend an evening in the Windy City now. We can’t get enough.

But being an audience member takes effort and focus. It’s about respecting a performer’s craft and showing your appreciation for their performance. When we get distracted - or worse, become the distraction ourselves - we aren’t only being disrespectful. We’re robbing ourselves of something meaningful and unexpected. It’s up to us to meet the performers in the middle, in hopes of having a one-of-a-kind experience together.

Show Notes #2,347

Got in a fight with the audience tonight.

Not a literal fight. Just a push-and-pull-back-and-forth-all-out-brawl for control of the room.

The crowd was split into sections - like cliques in a high school cafeteria.

There were the drunks. Unruly and loud, unfocused and proud. You just ignore the drunks.

There were the coworkers. A tight-knit group, out for their first work event together. It takes effort but with a little finesse the coworkers can be pulled apart for an hour or so.

The couples were there, on first or second dates, resting their high hopes for a good night out squarely on my shoulders.

And how could I forget the newbies? The noobs have never been to the theater before. They don’t know they’re supposed to turn their phones off. They don’t know when to be quiet and when to react. They don’t know how to behave, so you have to teach them.

Things happened tonight that have never happened before. I have a Plan A, B, and C for the most likely scenarios but I’m pretty sure we made it to X, Y, and Z before coming back to the beginning. As Murphy said, “anything that can go wrong will go wrong” - I just didn’t realize he was specifically talking about tonight.

I guess things didn’t go wrong - they were just different. When you get in a fight with the audience you have to pull out all the stops.

You duck. You weave. You dance around the ring, slowly closing in on the ultimate goal. You keep the drunks at arm’s length while simultaneously connecting with the newbies. You split up the coworkers and smile at the couples.

A well-crafted joke is a punch to the gut; a dramatic moment hits them like an uppercut. It’s an unending barrage of every trick in the book, but you still have to act as if everything is going according to plan.

And maybe it was. After all, by the time it was all over I was still standing.

And so was everyone else. A room of strangers, briefly unified in applause and mystery.

Got in a fight with the audience tonight. Went the distance and I won.

More Mystery

Sometime last year I realized that something major was missing from my life. There was no mystery any more. I wanted to change that.

It all started with my phone.

I use my phone too much. Over the past decade it just became a way of life. I was always on my phone: early mornings at the airport, waiting backstage at a show, riding the train, walking to the gym.

“My name is Mark and I’m addicted to my phone.”

Well, I was addicted to my phone - but not anymore. I made steps to change that, all in an effort to add more mystery back into my life. I went from being on my phone around 4 HOURS A DAY to between 30 and 60 minutes every day for the past few months.

You might think I’m being over-dramatic here so do me a favor. Check your screen time right now. Chances are the number is pretty high. Don’t panic, it’s the culture we live in. But you can make changes to improve the relationship you have with your device(s).


Want to break your phone addiction, too? Here’s how I did it:

  • I read a few great books on phone use, including this one. It’s full of useful ideas on how to limit your phone use and make more time for the things you love.

  • I stopped going on social media. Honestly, I despise it and had for years. I only kept using it because I thought I needed it to become a successful entertainer. The second I deleted Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram from my phone a huge weight was lifted. Not convinced? Read this book and try a week without social media for yourself.

  • I took Safari off my phone, too. The temptation to go to a web version of social media or mindlessly scroll the latest news stories was too great, so I removed that variable.

  • I changed where I charge my phone so that it wasn’t always within reach. When I’m home I try to leave it charging in the other room so my first impulse isn’t to grab my phone when I have down time.

  • I tried some other things, too, like changing my colors to greyscale or setting timers on social media. But those are too easy to bypass and I wanted to permanently alter my habits. Those methods might help you, though, so check out some more ideas here.

  • I’m almost always on Do Not Disturb mode. I only allow certain people to call me but keep my notifications off unless I’m on the road.

The first week of breaking your phone addiction is very weird. Out of habit, you take your phone out and go to open one of the most addictive apps. Then you realize they aren’t there, swipe around a few times and put your phone away.

After that, you’ll find yourself wondering how you’re going to fill the time. Everywhere you look you’ll see people on their phones, just constantly scrolling and double-tapping and clicking. It’s eye-opening.

Turns out, after a few weeks of limited phone use you start to crave other things.

I’ve been reading and running and writing more. Stephanie and I have been seeing more theatre lately. We saw a stunning production of Hamlet last week and an incredible concert a few days before. And, I didn’t need to tweet about it or watch it happen through my phone. It lives on in my memory, two of my favorite evenings in Chicago with my beautiful wife.

So, what does this have to do with mystery?

Well, breaking up with my phone made me realize how much mystery I was missing out on in my daily routine.

I was constantly able to have any information at a moment’s notice, with no regard for how incredible that information truly was. I could literally ask my phone for any answer and have it within seconds. That’s crazy! And absolutely unnecessary.

Deleting social media meant I wasn’t aware of the latest updates my friends were sharing. Their recent adventures were a mystery to me. Now when we get together, conversation is suddenly lively and fun again.

This personal realization about how social media was affecting me sent me down a wormhole in search of as much mystery as possible.

I’ve stopped Shazam-ing (new word I just made up) songs I didn’t know, just so I could force myself to be content not knowing what the song was.

I’ve stopped using GPS in the city when I’m headed to a new location. I’ll memorize the route before I leave home and if I get lost I just ask for directions. When people are given the chance to help you, they light up! We’ve forgotten how great it feels to do something nice for another person.

I stopped reading reviews. We wander into restaurants or shows now, without knowing what to expect. It’s marvelous.

We took a chance on a movie a few months ago without reading about it beforehand. And we ended up having an incredible night! Out of curiosity I looked up the Rotten Tomatoes score when we got home. I was shocked to learn that it was only 55%. I’m glad I didn’t know, because we probably wouldn’t have gone at all and would have missed one of the most fun date nights we’ve had in the past several years.

One night Stephie and I were sitting on the couch making each other laugh and suddenly found ourselves unable to remember a tagline from an old inside joke. We refused to Google it and sat there laughing, trying as hard as we could to remember. After 15 minutes, we looked at each other and said the phrase in unison. We laughed so hard we cried.

It takes time to adjust but not knowing is my favorite feeling in the world. It lets me appreciate the time I have now and the people I’m spending it with. It lets me focus on what matters most because I have no idea what comes next. And guess what? I don’t want to know.

I’m tired of having all the answers. I want more mystery.