Theater Seats Suck? Yes. Should Audiences Masticate at the Show? Hell. No.

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Noises OffReaders of The Clyde Fitch Report are aware that I follow Doug McLennan’s acclaimed artsjournal.com bloggers quite religiously. One reason is they do have a pulse — not always the pulse, but at least a pulse — on arts advocacy and trend issues that we commonly care about. Again, the opinions may be wacky, but they are never uninteresting.

Occasionally, though, some items beg for a response. On McLennan’s own blog, Diacritical, for example, he posted last week about the problem of uncomfortable theater seats. When he caught a screening at his local gigaplex, he says that he enjoyed…

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stadium seating, reclining extra-wide luxurious seats with cup holders in the armrests, and so much legroom you could park a Winnebago

In light of the fact that, during the 1990s, some $25 billion was spent on constructing performing-arts spaces such as concert halls, he asks why the seating in such spaces is so terrible. That’s fair: While he says “much of the exterior architecture tries to be distinctive…the insides…are for the most part entirely predictable.” Why, he also asks, do the “customer amenities inside the halls constructed over the past 20 years…kind of suck”?

McLennan enumerates the usual complaints: “Narrow aisles, cramped leg room, utilitarian seats that if not uncomfortable are hardly luxurious,” not to mention “an austere formality to the rows of perches lined facing the stage.” Why is it, he asks, “that virtually all of the halls built in this era more or less follow the same bare aesthetic when it comes to amenities?”

Great questions all. But then he makes a left turn into madness — and that’s why the CFR is taking the time to articulate a response. McLennan says “There’s an argument to be made for preserving formal rituals in going out to see a performance,” but why, he asks, “can’t I bring my drink back in to the show?”

Well, Doug, think about it this way: You’ve just paid $120 to see Billy Elliot on Broadway. It’s your once-a-year trip to the theater in New York, you’ve enjoyed your midpriced dinner, you and your significant other are your dress clothes — khakis, say, nothing overly formal — and you sit down in your decent seats, like third or fourth seats in from the left aisle. In the first two seats arrives two people not as well dressed and they’re carrying, oh, Kentucky Fried Chicken. Or burgers and fries. Or Chinese food. Or bottles of beer, in paper bags or no bag at all. Why should you have to sit beside these creatures who think that live performance is the same aesthetic and entertainment experience as the screening of a film? Film is not live. Why should live performers of any kind — actors, dancers, orchestral musicians — have to be listening to the slurping and masticating and blowing of bubbles and the passing around of cellophane and chomping and spit and swallowing and belching? We’re not saying theater seats should not be more physically comfortable. The seats in the Belasco Theatre on Broadway are so tight, so Lilliputian, that sitting through Journey’s End a few years ago beside a woman of colossal girth made it seem as if we, too, were crowded into the dank trenches of World War I. But a plea for food and drink? No thanks. It’s disgusting. It batters carpets, stains fabric and food, in particular, stinks up the joint. You’re right: “Tickets to arts performances can cost many times more than movie tickets.” Not just can, but do. And because they do, should one not have the right to expect and, indeed, demand an experience that isn’t degraded and demoralized with amenities fit for 12-year-olds drooling for Harry Potter? You say “from an amenity experience, there’s no question which is the first-class seat and which is steerage economy.” But who are you to be so sure? Paying more money, you’re suggesting, is an excuse to treat public performance spaces like the living rooms of crack houses?

We propose to separate the issues. More comfortable seating? Sure. Overdone gorge-fests and upchucks during the middle of your favorite symphony? Listen to that tuba, Doug. The flat note is no.