Anthony R. Miller checks in to complain about something no one can seem to agree on, including him.
I have a lot of jobs, one of them happens to be House Managing. If there is one thing everyone who House Manages, produces, or works box office has to deal with it is late seating. This awkward flashlight shuffle, otherwise known as the art of getting people into the show, after it has started, is one of the hardest parts of the job. For shows that have a “no late seating” policy, that means turning those people away. They ARE late after all. But is that at all a good idea? Should live theatre always do late seating? When I think about it, it becomes a little argument in my head; I kind of see it both ways – or maybe 5:
Everything starts late
Movies start late, concerts start late, if you want people to show up to your party at ten, you say it starts at nine. Sporting events almost always start on time (especially televised ones). But even then, if you’re late, you get to go to your seat eventually. When I ran poetry events at bars, it was just known you would start ten minutes late. Theatre is unique in that there is not a universally accepted buffer.
But, Theatre is different
Not every theater has the ability to sneak people in; sometimes they have to walk right on stage to get to seats, and can’t possibly go their assigned places without walking on people. Perhaps there are no empty seats because of walk-ups and ushers, or the play is really quiet and anything would be a huge disruption. Tiptoes can feel like an elephant stampede at the wrong emotional plateau. There is just no simple way to late seat people without being disruptive to SOMEBODY. So surely there has to be some instances when late seating is a no-go.
Don’t we want people to see theatre?
I hate not being able to late seat people, even if their excuse sucks. I want them to see the play. How does turning people away make someone want to see more theatre? Not everyone who is late simply lacks urgency. Shit, in fact, does happen. Some people get stuck in parking Narnia, stuck on public transportation, stuck in traffic, stuck in the bathroom line, box office, or stuck on the phone with a needy aunt. But no matter the situation, they are here to see this show; don’t we want to accommodate that if only to encourage them to come back? Isn’t a first time theater goer more likely to be late? When I work a show that is very popular, there are a lot more late people. Folks that don’t see much, don’t think showing up 5 minutes before curtain is a big deal. So if these part-time or first time theatre goers are turned away for being 20 min late, even though it’s ridiculous they’re so late, do we really accomplish anything by not seating them?
Oh for God’s sake, just show up on time.
Starting the show on time is like a game for me. Anything past 8:03 feels like a failure. I like making stage managers happy; they are notoriously hard to please; besides patrons have thanked me for starting the show on time. There’s a principal to it, starting when you say you’re going to start shows professionalism. If people know you’re going to start late, they just show up later right? WHY CAN’T EVERYONE SHOW UP 30 MINUTES EARLY? I’ve been yelled at by patrons who were fifteen minutes late, when they found out they wouldn’t get their actual seats, (Which to be fair were expensive.) go to the bathroom, and get a drink before I sat them. Sometimes people show up at 7:30 thinking the show was at 8, except it was at 7, their ticket said so. And I always try to seat them, but sometimes I can’t for whatever reason. It’s just not always possible. Did you know there are union rules for starting within a certain amount of time? There are. Oftentimes tickets are released if not claimed by show time. And dangit, when you start late, you end late. This can be a big problem when your show is 3 hours long!
The Happy Medium
Obviously, I’m being a bit contradictory here. As I said before, I see it both ways. If you start on time you need to accept some people don’t expect you to, and even though they’re the late ones, not accommodating them doesn’t help anyone. No one walks away feeling good. It’s about being welcoming; there aren’t a lot of things you get turned away for being late to. At the same time, theatre is different, there is no pause button. It’s a live real time experience. But then again, it comes back to that word: Welcoming. People who know to get there early and how long it takes to get to your seat, see theatre on a regular basis. The people who don’t are either A) Just late for everything and can’t help it, or B) Not a regular theatre goer, you know, the kind of patron we are all after: new ones. It cannot be argued that a casual theatre goer who shows up late and still gets in is more likely to go again, because he had a good experience getting a finger wag and a lobby seat. Of course it’s not that easy, theatre producers might have to take logistics into account as often as their artist’s and designer’s visions. You have to make sure there are easily accessible seats available, there has to be a time during the performance that it’s not a huge disturbance, and maybe when you’re considering layout, you use back entry ways for, you know, entering, and not loading giant scenic elements in the first 10 minutes of an act. We should consider these things, right? Or am I just allowing one more standard to crumble, am I contributing to the downfall of society, or am I just trying to be nice? I’m so confused. Now please turn off your cell phones, and enjoy the show. Anthony out!
Anthony R. Miller is a Writer, Producer, Director and a bunch of other things. Keep up with his projects at awesometheatre.org
I really dig this one, Anthony.
When I was working Fringe this past September, I had to deny a seat to a director who travelled all the way up from the South Bay to see finally see her show. (I mentioned it in my Fringe write-up here: https://sftheaterpub.wordpress.com/2014/09/22/theater-around-the-bay-first-time-a-fringin/ ) It was a shame to have to shut her out, but she directed a show that sold out in record time – if that isn’t a compliment to the quality of her work, I don’t know what is?
I think that the theatre can do some things to mitigate a no-late-seating policy:
1) Make it clear that there is no late seating in as many places as possible including their website (including on the confirm your credit card is going to be charged if you go any further page in nice bold print.).
2) If there is a mitigated late seating policy, such as you won’t get your chosen seat, ditto.
3) Making sure the restrooms are empty before closing the auditorium doors.
4) Pre-publicizing running times and presence or absence of an intermission, so that people can adjust their timing to their internal body rhythms. (This also helps at intermission.)
My take is shaded by being one of those folks who move heaven and earth to get to theatre on time and would expect that if I am late, the very best I could expect would be to stand in the back of the theatre until the intermission. From that perspective, seating late comers is a slap in the face to those of us who paid just as much money for our tickets but are now having our view blocked, lines going unheard as the folks being seated sort out their seating arrangements, coats, and (as happened today at The Book of Mormon) who gets which drink. They come in late, disrupt those of us who follow the rules, muck with our enjoyment of the show — and because they have been accomodated, have no reason to figure out that whole “starts on time” thing.
We no longer go to see A Christmas Carol at the ACT because a couple of years ago the sheer number of late seatings, despite the performance starting 25 minutes late, was so miserable that I had no Christmas spirit left at all by the end.
Really, I go to fewer theatre productions these days because between looking at the back of people shifting around in front of me instead of the actors AND trying to shade my eyes from the flashing phone screens, it almost seems more worth it to read a summary and use my imagination.