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  • Writer's pictureTheater Design Inc.

What Do You Know About Seating and Sightlines?

If you can’t see the performance, then what’s the point, right? I’m not talking about the fact that if you are seated on the extreme side of the auditorium you will not see the near upstage corner of the stage. This is allowed for in the scenic design. I’m talking about some seats where you can’t see a significant portion of the action on stage. Some older spaces have obstructed view seats that are sold at a discount. There are many newer spaces where some audience members will not be able to see large portions of the stage. Why does this happen?

Balcony boxes, those seating areas located on the side walls of the auditorium stretching from the balcony toward the stage are my personal bete noir. Historically, these were preferred seats for those wishing to be seen rather than to see. History has repeated itself - - consciously or not - - in some premier venues. Attending a performance of the American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center I was seated in a balcony box and the only way to see more than half the stage was to tip my chair forward and lean onto the railing. It is arguable that an opera house is designed as a space to listen to music, but I would argue that if you can’t see, then you can’t hear.

All of the performing arts share the need for good sightlines, but some place constraints on the seating design. Dance, for example, requires the audience to see the dancers from head to toe, from downstage to upstage and side to side because, for the most part, dancers are in motion. A relatively steeper seating design will satisfy this requirement. For a symphony orchestra, on the other hand, one is not so concerned with seeing the toes of the first violinist, but about what percentage of the audience members (who absorb sound energy) will be exposed to the stage and how this may impact room acoustics. These venues typically see a shallower seating design.

Another consideration and often a primary one is economics. For a venue to be financially viable (or as close to it as is possible in the US) a higher seat count is preferable. 2,000 to 3,000 and up to 5,000 or 10,000 seats depending upon the venue. Many performance venues are intended to accommodate all types of performances: theater, musical theater, opera, dance, symphony concerts, jazz, rock ‘n roll, etc. Incorporating seating and sightlines that will satisfy the sometimes diametrically opposed requirements of different performing arts is a key design challenge.

Add to that: the design of the structural, mechanical and electrical systems.

Add to that: the code requirements for egress, fire protection and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Add to that any other unique aspects of a design that inevitably come up and you have an intricate puzzle to be solved by the architect, theater consultant and design team.

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