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Why your theatre seat is awful.

June 27, 2018

So many reasons – but they mostly boil down to architecture and the economics of the business side of “Show.”

Most West End theatres are old – 1880s to 1930s. Most are thus “listed buildings” meaning permission in triplicate from the Queen before you can push a drawing pin into a notice-board, more or less.

Back when they were built, people were smaller, so legroom and width were not so important. There’s also probably the fact that they weren’t paying a month’s mortgage for 3 hours entertainment, and were thus less demanding, but that’s a philosophical argument not to do with comfort.

What was the truth is that theatres were designed for “social segregation.” The “orchestra stalls” or “stalls” as we know them today were pretty much how they always were. Except that the back area could have been a “pit” – second to lowest price benches behind the wealthier customers. Today, those are second most expensive and it isn’t always possible to adjust the rake (slope of the floor / height of steps between rows) to help see over the seats in front. Not a consideration when it was only the poor who sat there.

Upstairs, the dress circle meant “dressing up for the occasion” and could have been split into separate boxes. Knocked together to put full rows of seats in, structurally it wasn’t always possible to adjust the building to put a better rake in. Once columns went out of fashion, theatre circles became “cantilevered.” A huge lump of concrete as the back wall (that’s why the entrance doors are via a thick corridor) counterbalanced the balcony in front. It means no pillars required, but also that you can’t move the weight around too easily on the shelf created.

Above the dress circle, the other balcony or balconies could have been fitted with wooden benches, or just left as stone steps. Modern day requires seats, but they have been put on top of the original steps for the same structural reason. Sometimes we are lucky and the steps are high enough that room for legs to “dangle” makes up for the lack of legroom, sometimes not.

With more modern theatres, the sometimes shocking lack of legroom often comes down to architects who don’t actually spend much time at shows, but do have to work to a brief to make the theatre owner happy and wealthy.

Those bolt-upright seats are trendy “ergonomically designed” efforts, because architects are told that it is healthy to sit bolt upright, and that everybody wants to do so (and is capable of it). Even better, they can squeeze extra rows in, as they don’t need so much space in front. It’s also why a couple of theatres have seats that face sideways rather than straight ahead. It’s a space to put a seat in.

There is a small constraint on legroom – the distance to the nearest fire exit, and space between rows is laid down in law… the way around it is to shorten the armrests (which is where the distance from seat to the back of the one in front is measured from). If you see short arm rests and have no legroom, you know why.

There are also rules about how steep the angle of seats to the stage can be. It’s 45 degrees maximum. If you do that, you need even more rails and barriers at the ends of aisles than usual.

Simple economics does mean the more seats, the lower the “breakeven” point, above which the show starts to make money. With the best views in the centre, why have an aisle there, and why not have long rows. If you “offset” them – staggering so that seats are not one-behind-the-other but looking through the gap between people in front, you lose at least one seat per alternate row…

Finally, there’s the fact that theatre can do so much more – and we expect it to. Lights and speakers have to go somewhere, stages have to be raised or lowered, extended or set back, according to the producer, designer and director’s visions. When the theatres were built, the stage was in one place and the seating designed to focus on one point. Change it, the whole perspective alters.

And on that note, just to finish, one thing I’ve noticed over many years is that reader reports do indicate that the more you enjoy a show, the better your seat is, even if it is cheap and officially “restricted view.” Interesting that, isn’t it!

  1. patsyt permalink
    June 27, 2018 1:38 pm

    Great blog, very interesting. The high (or maybe that should be low)light of my career as an organiser of theatre trips in London was booking students side seats in the upper tier of the Noel Coward theatre. If you sat upright you could see none of the stage whatsoever, if you lent forwards – thereby annoying your neighbours – you could just about catch a quarter of the stage. And since the star of the show tends to take up centre stage we only got to see the peripheral characters peripherally, so to speak. I did complain, to no avail. That said, it does mean most West End shows are just about affordable if you don’t mind the discomfort, and you are sitting in an auditorium after all…

    • Steve Rich permalink*
      June 27, 2018 5:34 pm

      Thanks Patsy, glad you enjoyed it. Ah yes, the good ol’ Noel Coward shelves. A couple of them are not bad, the rest… well… you know even better than I do. There’s a reason they are sold very cheap.

      Totally true that most shows are affordable if you are willing to “sit anywhere.” If you know which “anywhere” seats are worth sitting in, even better. Think there’s a site that does that… something simian in the name, perhaps?! Personally testing them all, my faves are those behind pillars in the stalls or dress circle that have legroom and a view – provided you don’t mind moving your head a bit, LOL.

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