As a performer and as a director, I have worked in theaters of all sizes. I have played to thousands of people in big stadiums, and I’ve played to a handful of bargain-hunting theatergoers on folding chairs in divey storefronts.
As a theater critic, I now get to sit in those seats and watch other people pour their creative talents out on stage. And from the audience’s perspective, I can tell you that the quality of the seats can make a big difference.
Most theater events range from an hour to three hours. That can be a long time in a chair if it’s not comfortable.
Storefront theaters are usually at a disadvantage when it comes to being able to provide ideal seating. A lot of times the audience is seated on folding metal chairs or injection molded plastic ones. While I try to always be a positive person, such seats would be difficult to describe as being the picture of comfort.
I remember working for a storefront theater while I was in college. Matching plastic chairs would have been an improvement. Patrons were asked to sit on a mismatched array of chairs, benches, and carpet swatches. But that’s what you do when you’re a struggling artistic company.
When you are fortunate enough to have a beautiful, modern performance venue with multi-million dollar operating budgets, investing in quality seating is a much easier decision to make than when you are spending the witching hour in the middle of the night writing grant applications to try to come up with the money for toilet paper for the theater bathroom.
With the scarcity of quality, affordable theater spaces in convenient areas, it’s hard to be picky about the seating.
And, the truth is that for many theater-minded creatives, just finding a venue at all can be an accomplishment. For companies that rent space in places like Chicago’s The Edge Theater and Theater Wit, you are competing with countless other companies on the calendar.
Theater Wit and The Edge are both great venues. I have no complaints about their comfortable seating options and both venues are run by exceptional staff. But because they are quality spaces in prime locations, the demand for use of the space may exceed availability. More companies want to rent space than there are dates available to rent on the calendar.
In the suburbs, Skokie Theatre and Steel Beam Theatre are both great small venues. Although they exist primarily to host their resident theatrical productions, they also rent to outside companies to put on productions. And both stand out for having great seating. In fact, I would be inclined to call Steel Beam Theatre’s seats practically heavenly.
These are two great examples of venues that are ideal for taking a storefront show from the city, into the suburbs to reach additional audiences.
The amount of padding that you put your butt on is not the only consideration for being comfortable during a performance. Legroom is also a factor.
I’m just shy of 6 feet tall. I’m not going to be suiting up for the Chicago Bulls anytime soon (as much as I would like to), but as far as normal-size humans go, I have the long legs of a dancer.
Although not a body double for 7’4 consensus NBA Number 1 pick Victor Wembanyama, sometimes squeezing my frame into the confines of a theater seat can take a bit of effort.
NOT TOO TALL
The average US male is 5’9. Even someone that size would have trouble fitting their legs into some audience seating. I think it’s reasonable to admit that any accompanying discomfort can affect a person’s enjoyment of the play.
Modern construction and design can do amazing things in terms of making the theater patron experience an enjoyable one. But, a lot of classic venues were built decades ago. Many of Chicago’s most celebrated destinations have origins in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Granted, many of these iconic venues have been refurbished over the years. So, if you attend a show at the Auditorium Theatre, Chicago Theater, or CIBC Theatre, you are not sitting on seats from the 1800s. For the most part, these big houses balance the seating needs of the audience fairly well.
However, there’s one Chicagoland theater I have a love/hate relationship though. They always produce incredible productions attracting thousands of patrons a night, but their seats have practically no legroom. Sitting for a musical with your knees in your mouth is a distraction.
Installing new seating is not a low-ticket budget item. Just buying new seats can be expensive. If you’re focused on improving legroom while installing new comfortable seats, you’ll also end up reducing the size of the house. In other words, you might be adding an expense while reducing your potential income.
So, what’s the solution?
Every theater is different. Not only does each theater operate on its own unique budget system, but each also has individuality in how those funds are prioritized.
Redtwist Theater in Chicago was recently awarded a 3-to-1 matching grant from the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development to renovate its space. Everything I have seen at Redtwist has been of the utmost quality so any improvements to the comfort of its space would just add to the experience. But, is that the best use of those funds or would they be better spent on street signage to increase visibility or on lobby improvements?
Those matters of how much to spend and on what, needs are individual choices that the management and board of directors at each theater company will face. Every theater operates under different circumstances, so it’s impossible to offer any kind of blanket recommendations. Theaters should just be wise to keep audience comfort a consideration when making those spending decisions.
IN THE MEANTIME
The quest for perfect audience seating is an ongoing mission. Theaters will continue to make the changes they can when they can to keep audience satisfaction at a high point.
Many theaters, such as Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights, now allow patrons to bring beverages into the audience. Provided people aren’t spilling their drinks or being too noisy about enjoying them, this convenience is a nice plus.
If you’re going to a theater for the first time, or if you’ve been there before and weren’t satisfied with the plushness of the seats, consider bringing a pillow with you. I have found that this is particularly advantageous.
PAY IT FORWARD
Thanks to the creativity of our entertainment community, theatre, dance, and music can be performed and experienced in a wide range of spaces. If a theater can’t afford great seats, it doesn’t mean their productions are going to be bad. Quite often the opposite is the case, all the money went into putting on the best show. It’s usually worthy of any minor discomfort.
The important thing is to keep supporting the arts. To that end, I encourage you to support your local theater’s ongoing fundraising efforts.
I mentioned that Redtwist Theatre is raising money for a 3-to-1 matching grant that will dramatically impact the group’s ability to entertain patrons. I encourage you to support Redtwist’s fundraising efforts to give their artists an even better setting from which to entertain audiences. Go to www.RedtwistTheatre.org/support. Every dollar counts.
KEEP IT COMING
Steel Beam Theatre in St. Charles is also actively fundraising to keep professional theater alive and thriving in Chicago’s Fox Valley area. Like Redtwist Theatre in the city, this fine arts program deserves recognition and is a vital part of the entertainment community.
To support Steel Beam Theatre go to: https://www.onthestage.tickets/steel-beam-theatre/donate. Again, every little bit counts. And, Steel Beam Theatre is an organization that is dear to my heart.
Sometimes supporting struggling artists means contributing money to the theater companies they perform with. Sometimes supporting the arts means sitting in uncomfortable seats because it’s worth it to see the performers do their thing. But you don’t have to martyr. When in doubt, take a pillow.
The fine companies I’ve mentioned are not the only theaters in the Chicagoland area with good seating, by any means. And, the principles can easily be applied to any city, and to the disciplines of music, dance, standup comedy, and cabaret performances as well.
So now, let me pose the question to you – when it comes to seating comfort, what are your favorite theater venues?
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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