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Checking the stable door after the War Horse has bolted.

June 29, 2016

The New London Theatre has one of the most flexible auditoriums in London. So, when “War Horse” closed out went the paddock – and in came a dock, allowing Show Boat “Cotton Blossom” to float right into the centre of the stalls.

Naturally, with a totally new layout, I wanted to do what Theatremonkey is famous for – test the sightlines and value-for-money of every seat, adding new material to the site’s unique ’30 years of personal experience’ database.

The wonderfully helpful folk at Really Useful Theatres were happy to oblige, with Richard, their Director of Ticketing, kindly arranging it all (his partner even supplied the witty title for this blog). And so it was that one Thursday Morning in April, myself, Peter – Really Useful Theatre Group’s Box Office Manager, and Lindsey – the New London’s own Box Office Manager extraordinaire, convened in the foyer.

Promptly adjourning to the stage door, (where I’d just been to sign in and get a “visitor” sticker; all out of “Cats” ones, apparently, and had been for years) and via the world’s smallest lift – which can apparently take a wheelchair, just – we quickly found ourselves in a silent auditorium. Minus audiences, they are surprisingly un-nerving spaces. Sometimes, there are crews working to set up the show, others, it’s just you, your guides and a few ‘ghosts of shows past’ as you look around and remember.

A quick glance at an entirely empty auditorium can suggest that every seat has a similar view, many rows pretty much identical. Only time, and the space to explore, reveals just how much variation there is – even in adjacent seats. It’s this variation that provides the basis for Theatremonkey, of course; but it is even more crucial to the Box Office team, as Peter and Lindsey explained.

Peter started by handing me a printed sheet, detailing every seat they knew to have a problem. Some due to rails (replacing those with Perspex was discussed, and rejected, as neither council inspectors nor customers would trust it as safe), others for TV monitors so actors could see the orchestra’s conductor, and even a few (they do care as much as I do about this) for severe lack of legroom. Each potentially couldn’t be sold at “top price,” but it is here that a delicate balancing act begins.

The final price decision lies with a show’s producers, as they ‘own’ the place for the duration of the run (under the ‘four wall deal’).  It’s important to them, of course, that as many seats as possible are sold at the highest price – to return them a profit.

For Peter, the profit consideration for the tenant has to be paramount – but he has also to think of the theatre’s customers, to maximise their enjoyment of the evening and reduce the possibility of complaints. He also needs to ensure a good mix of prices, to suit all pockets.

At the box office counter itself, Lindsey would have the job of convincing the customer that a seat was great value. With both producer and customer to please, it is thus up to both herself and Peter to pool their deep knowledge and experience of both auditorium and ticket retailing and come up with a price structure tempting customers to spend simultaneously the maximum possible – and feel they were getting a bargain, too.

In the end, the only way to do it, is to “walk the theatre,” testing every seat. And so, for two hours, we did.

Starting in the furthest stalls corner, we walked along the rows, regularly pausing to sit down and look at the stage… and compare the seat numbers with the “price maps” (those colour-coded seating plans showing ticket prices).

Trust me, it’s both an art and a science – and something Really Useful Group theatres take extremely, extremely seriously. Peter, who had seen the show already (well, half, he was due to see the rest the next week) was able to explain the movements of the set, and how it might affect views. Later in our visit, as the crew prepared for that afternoon’s performance, the set did move into its second position, and his observations were spot-on accurate – confirming how skilled a job pricing is.

The very cheapest seats are just that. You can see and enjoy most of the show, only missing part of a scene happening above you at an angle, and seeing fewer actors’ faces (not always a bad thing, perhaps) and more actors’ well… anyway….

As you move towards the main section of the theatre, the prices increase, and the difference a few inches makes is very evident (no sniggering at the back). The most interesting change comes, though, between the ‘top’ and ‘second’ price. Quite a drop in cash terms, and yet, in a reverse of a wine-list, the second most expensive ticket is the one most often passed over…

… This time, stalls seats J1 and 2 had me asking an amused Peter if he’d brought his “Father Christmas” costume that day. Second price, perfectly angled towards the stage – as Peter says, “you must have some really ‘great value’ seats in this band.” He’s right, and these were they. A valuable lesson for ticket buyers in every theatre, I think (my beloved cheaper stalls seats at Wyndhams and the Royal Court Theatres being other examples).

Moving upstairs to the circle, the art of pricing became even more interesting. The New London’s unique blend of rails, curves and varied legroom – plus those TV screens – produce a real patchwork of clear views and seat comfort. All of which have to be taken into consideration, along with the desires of some customers to get that “overall” view of the show only balconies provide.

Some seats are easy to classify. Side view of half the stage, through wires? Bottom price. One leg comfortable, the other wrapped around a post… you can see the stage, but… second from bottom price, but warn the customer, and so it goes.

The difficulty comes in the main section of seating, where producers hope to make the most money, and customers would like to be… but won’t always like what they are going to get.

Those TV screens again. Fixed on the balcony front, the balcony isn’t thick enough to attach them without the screens blocking views for either circle customers above, or stalls folk below. Result? A dozen seats in the circle lose a chunk of stage. If that isn’t bad enough, two prime rows of seats have less legroom than those behind… AND the back row has easily the clearest view of proceedings, but is a little further away and is a coin-toss for either top or second price. The Box Office team called for second, producer top, so producers won (prices were revised a little later in the run). The point again, though, is to underline just how many factors affect even the most expensive area of seating, when it comes to ‘pricing the goods to sell.’

With the theatre’s multi-channel sound system being tested (perfect acoustics and multiple speaker channels makes even bland hard rock sound amazing) and a quick return to the stalls to see the boat move into position, it was time to take my leave and ponder just how much work goes into this little considered but most vital of all aspects of our customer experience.

Next time you buy a ticket, selecting it from the screen online, you can be sure that people like Richard, Peter and Lindsey are using singular skills, working very hard to bring you the best deal they can. Prices are high, we all know that, but theatres actually are interested in customer satisfaction as well as ensuring the shows can keep running at a profit. Reassuring, isn’t it!


My thanks to Richard, Peter, Lindsey and all at Really Useful Theatres and the New London Theatre for their kindness and hospitality. Without it, this article, and everything on the Theatremonkey site about seating for “Show Boat” could not have been written.

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