The Theatre Experience: Time for an Upgrade

The latest new-generation movie megaplex recently opened near us. It’s got stadium seating,


reclining extra-wide luxurious seats with cup holders in the armrests, and so much legroom you could park a Winnebago. A couple of the 14 screens in the megaplex are Imaxes that surround you with giant images and wrap you in sound. In the lobby they sell real food, the kind you might conceivably want to consider eating. All in all, the experience is a treat, one that elevates the ritual of going to a movie (ugly outside architecture notwithstanding).

In the 1990s we spent $25 billion on new concert halls, theaters and museums in America. Handsome buildings most of them. One thing though. While much of the exterior architecture tries to be distinctive (Disney Hall being an obvious example) the insides (Disney an exception) are for the most part entirely predictable. And despite the fact that the average concert hall was many times more expensive to construct than the new-generation movie complexes, the customer amenities inside the halls constructed over the past 20 years – how can I put this kindly – kind of suck.

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Narrow aisles, cramped leg room, utilitarian seats that if not uncomfortable are hardly luxurious. There’s an austere formality to the rows of perches lined facing the stage. Nothing particularly wrong with formality. And many of the auditoriums are pleasant enough to be in. But how is it that virtually all of the halls built in this era more or less follow the same bare aesthetic when it comes to amenities?

The movie theatre industry realized with the explosion of infinite choice that they had to compete to make the theatre experience competitive with the home flat screen and surround sound. They had to make the live experience of watching a movie in public a better deal. At a minimum that meant making the watching experience as comfortable as possible, then delivering state-of-the-art picture size and quality.

There’s an argument to be made for preserving formal rituals in going out to see a performance. But things change. I like some of the rituals, but I have to admit I often resent the degree to which it is imposed by rigid seats and cramped legroom. And why can’t I bring my drink back in to the show? Some theatres just work better as formal spaces. But others? The fact that there seems so little innovation or re-thinking of the physical experience of going to concerts seems like a missed opportunity.Recently, Adam Kenwright, who markets West End shows in London, said that the uncomfortable seats and poor amenities in West End theatres was seriously deterring people from buying tickets to shows.

Tickets to arts performances can cost many times more than movie tickets. Yet from an amenity experience, there’s no question which is the first-class seat and which is steerage economy.

The new generation of baseball stadia are amenitiy-rich. The new generation of coffee shops (Starbucks, et al) concentrate a lot of their resources in developing customer amenities. Go to a House of Blues or other perfoming spaces such as LA’s Knitting Factory, and the seats are removed altogether or pushed to the sides. People rock out while the performer is on. I’m not saying take out the seats, but if movie theatre owners figured out they had to deliver a better seating experience to compete, doesn’t it follow that the performing arts ought to consider how they could upgrade?

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  1. Sue T. says

    Interesting point. The newish Roda Theater at the Berkeley Rep has horrible seating — unbroken rows of 30 seats with little leg room, so if you're seated in the middle, you either have to get there early or squeeze past 15 of your fellow theatergoers. And if you're on the aisle, be prepared to have your toes stepped on at least once. No one thought about patron comfort in the design stages.

  2. Matt K says

    Amen! We're so focused on providing the best possible artistic product, that we forget that the product that the audience is buying is the entire experience!

  3. James S. Russell says

    Watching a movie is a much more passive experience than engaging with a live performance. big, cushy seats with wide spacing sap the kind of electricity that helps performers and audiences feed off of each other. Today's performance halls are a compromise between comfort (hugely improved over old halls) and maintaining an intimacy with the performers that makes them exciting places to be. You can make a screen bigger but you can't make performers bigger. Indeed, the "stadium" in stadium seating is really just raking the seats steeper, just like in a concert hall, to get the viewer closer to action. Sightline and acoustical considerations also affect how seating can be done. And every square inch you give to seating space costs a lot. Not that there isn't room for improvement. Probably the most inventive theater, in terms of changing audience relationship is upcoming home for New World Symphony in Miami. They're doing everything. Cheers,

  4. Rafael de Acha says

    THANKS FOR THIS POSTING! Here in South Florida, the multi-million (ballpark cost $450K and mounting in deficits) Adrienne Arsht Center (formerly Carnival Center…) is a 3-stage disaster. During a Rolando Villazon concert I attended there were TWO accidents in the aisles due to poor layout and marking of the un-carpeted terrain. The seats are cramped and leg room stingy in both the Opera House and the Concert Hall. The blackbox seating is a joke. For a disabled person like me, getting to one's seat is a major accomplishment. The approach to both halls is from the side, with hardly any terraced space outside and pitifully inadequate lobbies. The bathrooms are poorly designed (I've seen better at the airport) and the lobby concessions few, limited in choice and overpriced. Other than that we're OK.

  5. Alice says

    James. S Russell – I do agree that watching a movie can be a more passive experience than watching live performance, but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve been to plenty of movies that I’ve been very engaged with, and the comfortable seats haven’t been a problem. As to the opposite, I remember sitting through a performance of King Lear with Simon Russell Beale in typically amazing form as Iago, but I was desperate to leave because my legs were shoved up against the seat in front of me, I couldn’t move without elbowing my neighbour, and I was unbearably hot because of shoddy air con. I was definitely not engaged with the performance then!

  6. says

    I was recently in a production of Macbeth where the house had cushy movie theater style seating that leaned back a little, with plenty of leg room. They let people take their wine and beer, as well as food from the adjoined restaurant, into the show. The Venetian Theater was the venue, in Hillsboro, Oregon.

    Working there was a great experience, and all of my friends who saw the show loved the seating.

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