Is This Seat Taken?

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Lately, I've noticed something peculiar at various houses: While there exists a time-honored tradition of trading up your family circle or balcony seat for some premier empties down in the orchestra, more people seem to be taking umbrage at these opportunists. 

Yet the funny thing is, it has nothing to do with a budget-conscious culturephile poaching a seat that they mistakenly believed to be empty only to find it was in fact occupied—a common occurrence and occupational hazard in this case. Rather, these are people like a trio of students who, at Ian Bostridge's Carnegie Hall recital, took bona fide empty seats at intermission, only to prompt the moral outrage of a fellow audience member.

At the Met, a physical fight almost broke out between a man trying to grab a free orchestra seat and a man in an adjoining seat who had evidently been happy to use the spare as an ersatz coat rack. It all reminded me of the exchange between Madeline Kahn and Barbara Streisand in What’s Up, Doc? in which Kahn seethes “Don’t you know the meaning of propriety?" Streisand flippantly replies (carrot in hand): “Propriety; noun: conformity to established standards of behavior or manner, suitability, rightness, or justice. See ‘etiquette.’”

These instances have also led me to ponder the topic of seating, particularly as we are now in one of the busiest travel periods of the year and countless couples and families encounter similar issues when it comes to asking a stranger to switch seats on a plane or train. As a student, I had no compunction with moving from K2 down to base camp at intermission. Similarly, I don’t have an issue now with switching my seat on a plane if we’ve taken off and there’s a free row across the aisle.

Once a ship has sailed, the passengers are on board for the ride and while there may be some running for the nearest lifeboat at intermission (a boon for those in standing room), it’s much harder to get in than it is to get out. When I ushered at the former New York State Theater, there was a very simple rule: ticketholders could switch seats at intermission within their own seating area. Moreover, the house would occasionally re-seat ticket holders of their own volition—the Met went so far as to upgrade some of its ticket-holders to better seats after an unforeseen HD element left some seats with obstructed views.

On the other hand, I can see how frustrating it may be for someone to pay the full $350 for a ticket only to find that someone who bought a $27 seat land in an adjoining row. Architecture being what it is, not all seats are created equal—or, in an Orwellian sense, some seats are more equal than others. This debate also leads to other arguments, chief among them: Does buying a ticket entitle one to ownership of said seat for the duration of the performance? Does becoming a subscriber guarantee a person the ownership of their seat for the duration of the season? And does buying a ticket for one seat preclude an audience member from scouting out other prospects?

What the Hall Rules Say -- Or Don't

The backs of tickets, a tacit user agreement, are somewhat vague on this matter: Lincoln Center’s language begins by stating: “This ticket is a revocable license to attend the event on the front of the ticket. Lincoln Center reserves the right to revoke the license, to refuse admission or eject any person for violation of the law or the terms or conditions hereof…” Both BAM and the David H. Koch Theater take the ticket-as-a-license copy further to deem it “a personal license” and non-transferable. Carnegie Hall, the Met and the New York Philharmonic make no mention of the ticket being a license, personal or otherwise, and only Carnegie Hall's mentions the clause that management may refuse admission or request a ticket-holder to leave at any time. Perhaps the strongest language towards the idea of trading up, however, is in the idea of a ticket being “non-transferable” (though where that leaves people who give tickets they are unable to use to friends or the like is equally unclear).

And before audiences even enter the equation, there are seats that are accounted for, that “belong” to directors, designers and production team members who set up in the middle of the auditorium at rehearsal tables to see a performance to fruition. "The value of a seat in the orchestra stalls may start out at $500, but at 8:00 pm curtain it immediately drops to $0,” says director Thaddeus Strassberger, who advocates for an “equitable yield” developed for opera house and concert hall box offices. “I know you can't devalue the product by constantly 'dumping' remaining tickets at the last minute, and that practice could alienate a core subscriber base. But there must be a way to get as many eager eyes and ears into the opera house as possible, whilst maximizing the revenue potential.”

Strassberger himself has a unique insight into seating ownership. As part of his direction for Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots at Bard College’s Summerscape in 2009, the first intermission included a group of Protestant chorus members picnicking in the auditorium of the Fischer Center. It was a nod to the opera’s own question of occupation with the longstanding Catholics and interloping Huguenots battling it out for Paris.

"I wanted very much not to turn the episode into something political, but rather emotional: What does it feel like to be occupied and was there a way to find a sympathy for the group of people who might otherwise be considered the villains in the opera?… [For an audience], from the moment your credit card is charged, you have a kind of presumed tenancy, if not ownership, of an armchair,” Strassberger explains. The audience was then confronted with squatters in their seats, squatters who brought illicit food and beverages into the auditorium, allowed their children to run amok in the aisles and break into spontaneous prayer as the house lights dimmed.

It was a fascinating social experiment that yielded a range of reactions. "I spoke to several patrons and they were genuinely upset and had felt a lot of animosity towards the Huguenots,” says Strassberger. “I even heard one man at the second performance tell two of them to 'F--- off! This is my seat!' He clearly believed that his peaceful enjoyment of an opera was being diminished by the arrival of the others, who were clearly less worthy than he was.”

So what exactly does the cost of admission get us? Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s the seat we selected at the box office or online. Sometimes we do better, occasionally we fare worse. At a production of Satyagraha, my under-the-weather husband left after the second intermission to nurse his sinuses. I came back to find his seat had been immediately taken by an older fellow, who eyed me suspiciously and defensively. I could have said to him, “Excuse me, that’s not your seat,” but otherwise it would just be empty. Taking a page out of Prince Orlofsky’s book, I shrugged, thought “chacun à son goût” and settled in for the last act.

Is there a rightful owner to a theater seat? And does that conflict at all with switching or trading up at intermission? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.