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All the Way Home, a production of Vancouver’s Electric Company for which the audience sat right on the set with the actorsMichael Julian Berz

A thirtysomething opera fan got caught sneaking nuts into her mouth during a performance at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre this week. The usher told her to stop, while an older gentleman sitting beside her said, "If you were my daughter, I'd take away your allowance." Still, he added wistfully, it was nice to see younger people at the opera.

And at least she wasn't tweeting. The Fredericton Playhouse now routinely gets complaints about audience members who have their smartphones out either to film a performance – or text somebody. And yet for every two or three of those, there is one from a patron annoyed about the no-electronics policy, reports executive director Tim Yerxa.

There is a growing tension in the performing arts between desperately wanting an audience and bemoaning its behaviour. Symphony orchestras, regional theatres, ballet and opera companies across North America are feeling stiff competition to lure ticket buyers who they believe are increasingly distracted by interactive entertainment and social media. But when those sought-after new audiences do show up, they don't always behave the way that venerable institutions and veteran audiences expect.

"Someone once said we wouldn't treat dinner guests the way we treat audiences: What do you mean you are late? You can't come in. You can't eat. Well, perhaps you can have a drink, but don't talk to the person next to you and turn off your cellphone!" says Camilla Holland, general manager of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. "But when you do have these strangers sitting in the dark together, the audience has an experience, and we love that. That is why we do it live. Otherwise we could all be at home downloading."

Of course, that's the problem: We could all be home downloading. Our own choice of entertainment. On our own schedule.

"Technology has fostered an assumption of convenience and customization," says Ben Cameron, the arts program director at New York's Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. "In the live performing arts – [which]you have to drive, park and show up at a certain time to see – we are hard-pressed to meet those demands."

Cameron, who points out that video games now outsell movies and music, was jolted by a recent focus group in which a young man said, "Sitting in the dark unable to talk to my friends either in person or virtually is not my idea of a good time."

So, should he be allowed to tweet his friends instead? Should he be able to quaff wine and munch nuts? Or take photos to post on Facebook? Is it audiences who need to change their boorish behaviour – or should performing arts institutions change their outdated rules and rituals?

Many observers argue that all that is needed is an agreed-upon etiquette – but some also point out that the practice of receiving the high arts in reverential silence is a new one.

"Back in the 19th century, pretty much anything was considered acceptable, people would hoot and holler in the theatre, talk in their boxes at the opera," says Paul DiMaggio, a Princeton University sociology professor who studies non-profit institutions. "It was not until the late 19th century that the conductors, with help from the patrons who paid for the opera or the orchestra, took it upon themselves to demand certain behaviour from the audience."

In his research, DiMaggio has argued that late 19th-century American arts patrons earned social cachet through elite institutions they established to replace the populist culture of the palm court orchestra or the cabinet of curiosities with the high art of the symphony and the museum. These were places where decorous behaviour and fancy dress were expected, and unwritten rules – you don't clap between movements during classical music – were enforced with shaming.

Others trace the development of decorum to the introduction of electrical light to North American cities.

"Our idea of what it means to be an audience only began when they invented electricity," says Holland. "We could turn down the house lights, turn up the stage lights and tell people how to behave."

Some of these rituals – such as wearing suits and dresses to high-art performances – have easily given way to more casual behaviour. Others, such as whether one may clap between movements or the value of a no-drinks-in-the-auditorium policy, are still hot topics.

Meanwhile, the idea of letting electronic communications into theatres or concert halls has started a stormy debate. Ringing cellphones have long been a clear evil – at concert earlier this year of the New York Philharmonic, the conductor actually put down his baton and waited until a persistent phone was silenced – but what about quietly grabbing a video clip or tweeting? So-called "tweet seats," an area in the back row of an auditorium where patrons are permitted to use their smartphones, are the hottest trend among American theatres and orchestras right now, but they've also generated controversy in the community and are still being discussed rather than implemented in Canada.

For his part, Yerxa can't understand why someone would pay $50 to attend a live performance and then watch it on the tiny blue screen of a smartphone because they are so busy capturing it on video.

"Are we losing our capacity to sit uninterrupted for two hours and not communicate with anyone?" he asks. "Are we losing that capacity not to be distracted ... to engage with a single idea or performance for several hours? I hope not."

He is not alone in his concern: At a cultural industry gathering at the Banff Centre earlier this month, Canadian conductor Julian Kuerti privately expressed frank dismay at the way North American orchestras were jumping on the social-media bandwagon in attempts to draw new, younger audiences.

"As an artist, I care deeply that there is a lot of meaning, a lot of substance in what we do. That is what is attractive about it," he said in a recent interview. "Instead, we try to bait and switch, to fool people into coming to a concert because it is supposed to be interactive ... If we are not careful, we will wind up with an audience who is not there for the same reasons as the musicians are on the stage."

Some Canadian artists are responding by using social media as an artistic tool.

"One of the things I have said to detractors is that I don't think it should be a 100-per-cent policy either way," says Aislinn Rose, artistic producer of Praxis Theatre, a Toronto group that has experimented with live tweeting during shows when the plays are about a political issue – the Toronto G8 riot in one case, and human rights in another. "How do you make it not just a marketing tool but part of the work and part of the conversation?"

Another approach is to emphasize strongly live performance's connection with its audience, up close and personal. In her improvised show Blind Date, which is currently playing in Winnipeg, Toronto performer Rebecca Northan scouts out a potential date from willing patrons in the lobby beforehand and brings him onstage for some fun.

"It's ironic that in the digital age, television shows and movies are trying to make things so interactive: 'Play this game! Send questions to the characters!' They are trying so desperately to do what live performance does naturally ... People are hungry to interact."

And she doesn't mean via Twitter.