How to get the most out of watching a stage play

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Going to a stage play can be a magical experience…or it can be a bewildering and/or boring one. Of course, much depends on the quality of the play, the director and the cast, but there's also a great deal you can do to ensure your outing is a success.

For instance, a little prior reading is a good idea, particularly when it comes to classic stage plays, where the setting or language may be unfamiliar. Many potential theatre lovers have been put off from appreciating a classic play simply by not having experienced the language before and by being confused about what is taking place on stage. The classic example is, of course, Shakespeare, but this applies to Marlowe, Jonson, or any play before the eighteenth century.

Theatre programmes are usually of limited help in this respect and shouldn't be relied on. A quick internet search for the play beforehand is your best plan, and will help you to discover the basic plot, the themes and the main characters.

If you're a parent introducing a son or daughter to the theatre, remember that their first experience could be crucial. The same goes if you're a teacher taking students to see a play - you should bear in mind that it may be the first time some of the students have attended a professional theatre performance.

Uncomfortable seats with a poor view of the stage can put novice theatregoers off the theatre for good. (Check those cheap ticket deals carefully before committing to purchase.) In the same way, long, serious plays with difficult subject matter aren't good starting points.

Of course, with many students, the play they will be seeing is one which they are studying (in fact most examination boards request that students see a production of their set text). In these cases, a good initial classroom grounding in the play is invaluable.

Remember that the younger the students, the less motivated they may be, so anything you can do to help them understand and enjoy the experience is a good idea. For instance, tell them beforehand how long the performance will last and what to expect. And ensure they are aware of basic theatre etiquette such as not fidgeting, texting or eating. The only exception to this is if anyone is suffering from a cough - a supply of cough sweets will ensure no-one is distracted during the performance by constant hacking.

If the theatre has them, make use of opera glasses or mini binoculars, or buy a pair to take to the performance. They allow you to appreciate the nuances of expression and details of set and costumes that aren't easily visible to anyone sitting beyond the first few rows.

A useful complement to an actual theatre visit is being able to watch a filmed recording of a live performance. This has the added bonus of being able to stop and start at will, and being open to discussion and explanation at any time. In fact if a live performance of a set text is hard to find or expensive to see, a recording may be the only choice, so an internet search for a DVD or other recording of the play in question is well worthwhile. Recordings are also useful for any theatre lover who may find it too hard or expensive to get to a live production.

But if practicable, there's nothing like a live theatre visit for a memorable and enlightening performance. Happy watching!

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Rachel Agnew is website editor for Stage on Screen, the UK company producing classic stage plays on DVD for theatre lovers, English or Drama teachers and students. The plays were performed at London’s famous Greenwich Theatre Drama plays on DVD are now available from our website in multi-region formats.

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