Friday, September 18, 2009

In Praise of Central Aisles

Seating plan of the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow

Yesterday, I had an unexpected argument with a working architect about theatrical seating plans. I blurted out, uninvited, that I really hoped he would put center aisles for audiences in his designs because it was a hassle climbing over all the members of the audience to get in and out of seats in modern theatres. It was an offhand remark, and I expected he would just smile patiently.

However, he took immediate umbrage, which really surprised me. I was told that my position was illogical. He said he'd show me on a diagram that aisles on the side were just the same as center aisles, and that "the best seats in the house" were wasted in designs featuring a center aisle.

I responded that emotionally, as an audience member, I felt trapped without a center aisle, that I preferred a choice of pathways into and out of my seat. He responded that I didn't know what I was talking about, that most theatres were now designed without center aisles. I shot back that maybe that was a factor in the decline of live theatre. He said he didn't think theatre had declined. Etc.

When I got back home, with the help of someone I know, I spent some time googling on the internet. So I learned some interesting things about theatre architecture. According to the late Stanford University theatre professor Wendell Cole's 1954 article, "Some Contemporary Trends in Theatre Architecture," the kind of seating plan I particularly dislike had been invented by Richard Wagner for his Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1876. It was specifically designed to showcase Wagnerian Opera. It is called, in the trade, "Continental Seating." As part of his German aesthetic (no doubt somehow descended from Lutheranism as well as Modernism), Wagner stripped away decorations, boxes and balconies--replacing the traditional Opera House horseshoe ring with a fan-shaped design featuring seats on risers, like a stadium.

As in a stadium, such a architecture requires locating many seats too far back to hear properly (except, perhaps for the crashing noise of Wagnerian Opera or a contemporary rock concert--no wonder shows are mostly miked today, and actors no longer learn how to project their voice to fill a room). Not surprisingly, despite an absence of pillars to support balconies, sightlines from seats located on the far sides have only "partial views." Traditional theatres group most of the audience in front of the stage, increasing seating capacity through the addition of balconies and boxes.

Richard Pilbrow, a British theatrical designer, is another critic of "Continental Seating." In a 2000 Theatre Communications Group article, A Lively Theatre, he raised some of the concerns I had shared with the architect. An excerpt:
The 20th century has not been a good time for theatre architecture.

In the years from the 1920s to the 1970s, the world became littered with overlarge, often fan-shaped auditoriums that are barren in feeling and lacking in intimacy--places that are seldom conducive to that interplay between actor and audience that lies at the heart of the theatre experience. Why do theatres of the 19th century feel so much more "theatrical"? And why do so many actors and audiences prefer the old to the new?
Pilbrow blamed Wagner, and his idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, for starting the modern trend. Likewise, he pointed out: "With hindsight, there were actually far too many bad seats--almost all those more than half way back--and the lack of encircling audience made the theatre seem more an antiseptic lecture hall than a theatre."
Architects, engineers and theatre people were all consumed by the urge to build new "democratic" frontal-view, fan-shaped theatres. This came to be coupled with the then-fashionable simplicity of the modern architectural movement. The result has been many theatres that today seem quite dreadful: vast auditoriums with the majority of seats to the rear, entirely lacking in any intimacy or "theatricality," and with poor acoustics to boot.
Luckily, he said, theatre designers had realized the error of their ways.

However, nothing I read seemed to make the point that the "best seats in the house" have more than the characteristic of central location. The reason that critics demand "two on the aisle" is the same reason that a central aisle is, in fact, central to good theatre. It is easy to leave if the show is not very entertaining. To have to clamber out across the laps of perhaps a dozen or more members of the audience is a deterrent to an quick getaway...which raises the stakes of attending a theatrical performance.

For, unlike the architect, who dealt with the theoretical ideal of designing seating for theatrical performances audiences wanted to see, traditional theatres were designed with the understanding that many shows are not worth seeing at all. Thus, a central aisle gives two sets of spectators aisle seats that are also near the center sightline--impossible with "Continental Seating." You want a seat near the aisle AND near the center. Traditional theatres fill up from the center outwards. So, a half-full house would be both near the central aisle and the central sightline. That's the beauty of traditional theatre design.

"Continental Seating," on the other hand, forces a choice between sitting in the center and sitting on the aisle. Yikes! Thinking of a play like a long airline flight, gives some understanding. What if you need to go to the bathroom? Who wants a middle seat?

In addition, a central aisle adds a "social networking" dimension to a night at the theatre (as do boxes and balconies). One may scan the audience to spot friends, enemies, and celebrities--then wander up and down the aisle during intermission, in order to work the room. Aisles, boxes and balconies also gives one something to look at, when attention drifts from the stage. It offers increased legroom at the best seats. And enables the cast to do Oprah-style audience interaction--to make entrances and exits amidst the audience. Sometimes a visible walkout by an audience member is a liberating experience for other theatregoers.

In sum, traditional central aisle seating plans recognize this reality of theatrical experience: Sometimes, the "best seat in the house" is the one that may be exited expeditiously.