Have you ever sat amidst a sea of empty seats at a show? Have you felt the awkward isolation of watching a big musical while being the only pair on your row? Have you felt the draughts while sitting in a big old theatre with few others to ease the chill from a lack of heating? I have recently attended not one but two shows which suffered from a severe lack of audience members up front in the stalls.
There’s no denying that being surrounded on all sides by vacant seats is likely to dampen the atmosphere of a jolly musical or the tension of a high risk acrobatic number for those sitting there. It can feel more like being at a rehearsal rather than the finished product at times; we come to expect full audiences for certain shows and when those audiences don’t materialise, those of us sitting in those seats have to work harder to grasp the buzz of energy from the stage. I’m certain that the cost of seats in the front stalls contribute heavily to those seats being unsold and I’m certain that the rising, often snarl-inducing fees are also to blame. But the fact remains: those seats are empty even though they have the potential to improve the experience of other paying audience members.
The crystal clear feeling of waste pervaded while I was at those two shows. At one performance, the seating block behind the front stalls was packed, while the front stalls were painfully sparsely populated. I couldn’t help but feel frustrated. Wouldn’t it be better for all if those audience members were invited to move forward? Wouldn’t it be better for performers to look out and see a packed immediate audience rather than a sea of empty seats? We were on the end of our row and were invited to move to the centre, but those sectioned off in the rear stalls were not invited to move as far as I am aware. I’d guess that there were twenty or so of us dotted around in that block of around 150+ seats – it was almost completely empty, yet people were not invited to move forward. I realise that there are those who would raise the money flag and declare that such invitations would be unfair… I’m sure it could be managed to allow those paying higher prices in the rear stalls or other tiers to be invited to move first, thereby appeasing those with a sense of hierarchy? I accept that moving those in the royal or grand circles to the stalls would be too time consuming or problematic, but I’m sure they could be moved within their tier and I’m certain that allowing those in the rear stalls to move forward when it is evident that large clusters or even entire rows have failed to sell would be relatively simple.
This may be a naive lament and I’m sure there are other factors which play into this protocol of leaving unsold seats empty – possibly a fear of chaos ensuing if audiences have been invited to move and then latecomers find their seats occupied? But I’m sure that could be side-stepped with knowledge of unsold seats. Perhaps there’s an argument about there possibly not being enough unsold seats for fair upgrades? But I’m referring to performances in relatively large theatres where significantly large blocks or rows of seats are unoccupied; it could be made fair for all if people were invited in order of price originally paid? Theatres know the pricing of their own seats. Then perhaps there’s a security issue? But does it really matter once tickets have been checked at the doors? Do ushers wander about with a register of assigned seats? I’m not convinced. But I have sat surrounded by vacant seats for a good few hours and I felt irked by the fact that paying audience members could have had the opportunity for a swift upgrade at no cost to anyone. They could and should have had an all important invitation to improve their experience and enjoyment while also providing potential benefit to the actors and the atmosphere…no?