“Sit by my side and let the world slip”

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Teddy at The Vaults

Previously I’ve written about ‘how to be a groundling‘ at Shakespeare’s Globe (though obviously some of those tips can be universally applied to standing areas in theatres), so I thought it was high time I turned my attention to the more widely used format: seats. An element of theatregoing that can just be taken for granted – if you only ever go to West End theatres then, to be honest, it’s fair enough that some of these things don’t cross your mind. Not that seating is perfect in many venues, but there are probably fewer things to consider. If you’re like me, however, and spend the vast majority of your time trundling around the Fringe, you’ll likely have begun to compile your own list of gripes.

For those of you who don’t know, what you’ll mostly be confronted with is unreserved seating. It’s a completely understandable concept for most of these places: the theatres are small, audience sizes can be unpredictable, and it would demand additional resources (such as specified tickets, seat numbers, etc.). As long as it’s well thought out then everyone’s happy – the Old Red Lion, Etcetera and Hope Theatres are good examples of how to get it right. The latter usually only has rows of seats two-deep, so it doesn’t matter that they’re on the same level, whereas the other two are very well raked, so you don’t need to worry about a head being in the way in front of you. As lovely as it is, I’ve had real issues with Above the Arts as it generally has row upon row of chairs on the same level, which is no good if you actually need to see what’s happening.

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The Local Stigmatic at the Old Red Lion Theatre
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Other venues, such as the main performance space at The Vaults, are just too big to go to the unreserved route. For some of its programming it does at least split the theatre up into sections, but during the festival it’s a free-for-all, though sometimes with overenthusiastic ushers forcing you into the front row (not great for a lot of critics, who rely on note-taking during busy times like that). For a venue like that it’s frankly absurd that they’ve resisted numbered seating for so long.

I’ve had one excellent experience of unreserved seating as a member of the press. For The Pitchfork Disney in the basements of Shoreditch Town Hall, we were allowed to head down before the rest of the audience and the ushers recommended good spots in which to position ourselves. Not that I think press should be prioritised over paying audience members necessarily, but there’s nothing more frustrating than being expected to provide a thorough review of a show when you couldn’t see everything and therefore couldn’t follow it all. What would be good is if better areas (if it’s not obvious from the setup) were suggested to those who made the effort to be there promptly, critic or otherwise.

What’s also key with unreserved seating is to be consistent with it. Only allow the odd reservation to be made in extreme circumstance (such as keeping an aisle seat for someone who needs to stretch out a broken leg); don’t pander to people whose only reason for wanting to save a seat is because they’re a fan of someone in the show. If they’re that big a fan, they should get there early to secure their place in the queue if they can – and if they can’t, hard cheese. That’s just the way it goes.

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The Pitchfork Disney at Shoreditch Town Hall
Photo credit: Matt Humphrey

Moving away from unreserved seating a bit… I don’t know about you, but I absolutely detest places with shared benches (cushioned or otherwise). Trafalgar Studios 2 is my main target, though there are others (Rose Theatre Kingston does at least have some single seats). If you know the person you’re sharing with it isn’t quite so bad, but they’re still a pain in the arse to co-ordinate – you have to stand up at the same time, and there’s no telling how much space your bench partner will take up. These monstrosities need to be scrapped sharpish, and all non-fringe theatres should have individual seats with arm rests installed. Not that I end up using them (I’m something of a doormat when it comes to that), but just to separate each seat so everyone knows their own territory for the duration of the show. To quote Gareth from The Office, “One word, two syllables: demarcation”.

Really what’s needed is for seats to be made a little bigger, and to re-space the rows. It’s not validating growing waistlines, more being practical about what’s actually needed for patrons to be comfortable – I’m not the smallest nor the largest, but space is still an issue. All too often I end up squished between larger people and end up struggling to breathe, or there’s so little legroom that you can’t even allow people to pass when you’re stood up & contorted into the most awkward position possible (I’m looking at you, Noel Coward Theatre). The dream is the Barbican Theatre, or some areas of the Olivier Theatre at the National; all seats are separated, relatively comfortable, and you can stay seated while the rest of your row files in. And while we’re re-spacing rows, if they could be placed with seats between shoulders of the row in front, that would be bloody marvellous. Whoever thought it would be a good plan to put people directly behind another person’s head was definitely having a bad day at the office.

What do you think? I reckon this is a fairly comprehensive (but also constructive) moan, but I’m sure there must be other seating problems.

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The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre (Olivier)
Photo credit: Richard H Smith

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