Is it Ethical to Take an Empty Seat in a Theater?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012 - 01:30 PM

Reserved seats (Flickr/geekstinkbreath)

Poll: Are empty seats yours to take?

In the July 6 issue of the New York Times Magazine, Ethicist columnist Chuck Klosterman answered a question in a way that I suspect might divide opinion among people who attend operas, concerts, theater and ballet:

Question: I buy standing-room tickets for performances. Is it ethical to take an empty seat, which of course costs more than my ticket, before the curtain goes up or during first intermission? NAME WITHHELD, NEW YORK

Answer: You can’t take the seat before a performance starts. People are allowed to be late. But once an event is (roughly) half over, you can occupy whatever wasted space you find.

I, for one, beg to differ. But first let me post some words by readers who commented on the Times article.

Bentwoode from Northern Virginia, referred to a tradition at the old Metropolitan Opera House: When seated patrons left during mid-performance, "many would hand their ticket stubs to standees in the rear, allowing them to take seats. As a penurious standee, I had frequent occasion to be grateful for their generosity.”

Neil Goldman MD, from New York City, asked, “If it is ethical to take an unused seat in the theater which was not purchased is it unethical for the airlines to prevent me from moving into an unused first class seat when I purchased a coach seat?”

Blackcatbone, from NYC, said, “You sit in an empty seat and the ticket holder shows up, so you get up, say “Oh, pardon me’ and leave. Why is that ‘unethical,’ or even impolite?”

Todd Fox, who identified his location as Earth, wrote, “However practical or tempting it might be to move in to a seat which you have not paid for, you are taking something which does not belong to you...Theater isn't free. Performers have to be paid, the theater must be maintained, and costumes purchased, before a show goes on. None of this is free, and neither is that empty chair in the front row. The money to do this comes from ticket sales, and the prime seats bring that money in.”

My colleague, Olivia Giovetti, weighed in on this topic last December and I commented that it is a concern if the sudden, new seat holder causes a problem for the person who bought the adjacent seat. I recalled being stuck next to a woman at Avery Fisher Hall who jumped into the empty seat next to me — one that I had purchased but didn't use. She reeked as if she had been dipped in cheap perfume and I had to suppress coughing during the first half of the program.

Having reflected further on this issue, I feel more strongly than ever that there is a pretty cut-and-dried answer to this question: You should take the seat or standing place indicated on the ticket you have purchased. If the theater management decides to improve your locations for any reasons, it is at their discretion.  

Ushers are not in the position to offer different seats but there are times when they see that a potential problem can be resolved by moving a ticketholder from one place to another. But the usher then must report this fact to either the chief usher or the house manager. There are two reasons for this. First, it is no secret that it was common in some American theaters, and in some European theaters even now, for ushers to have a thriving side-business “selling seats” in which a regular client would buy a ticket for a cheap seat or standing place and then give the compliant usher a “handshake” that would include some money. The usher would then say, “this way please” and put the client in a seat. The client knew that the usher might come by and re-seat him if the legitimate ticketholder turned up, but there was a tacit agreement that the client would still get a good place somewhere.

Second, certain seats in opera houses are designated for employees in the technical and artistic departments to come and go as needed. They should not have to ask someone to get out of the seat, especially if the performance has begun. 

One thing that a house manager or chief usher can do, if there are many empty seats, is as follows: Let us say that the back four rows of a theater are entirely empty and there are a hundred standees right behind them. The manager can authorize that the standees be seated in those rows. But this is done as a one-time courtesy at the decision of the management and is not precedent-setting.

When Hot Tickets Come at a Premium

These issues are a matter of faith and trust between an opera company and its audiences, and the company should keep ticket pricing clear, fair and consistent. Some opera companies have been toying with the concept of what is known as “dynamic pricing” which, in effect, is governed by the laws of supply and demand.

With this model, the cost of a theater or concert ticket escalates for hot-selling shows, while slack demand brings bargains. It resembles airline pricing: if the choice is between a plane departing with empty seats or filling those last seats at a low, last-minute price, the airline might offer a surprisingly appealing fare; airlines simply try to make as much as they can.

What if this were to happen in opera houses? Let us say that a subscriber returns a $100 ticket to a performance featuring a big star. Call it seat G5. Should the opera company re-sell G5 for the same $100 or should it try to sell it for $200? What if it does sell the seat for $200 and the new ticketholder finds that the people in G3 and G7 only paid $100? Does that potential subscriber feel kindly toward the opera company or feel abused?

In contrast, let us say that the opera company, at the last minute, cannot sell a ticket to G5 for even $100 but wants to make some money. So it sells the ticket $60, while the subscribers in G3 and G7 have paid $100. Do those subscribers feel kindly toward the opera company to which they have made an emotional and financial commitment? Or would they think, “why should I subscribe when I can get cheaper seats?”

Subscribers are the bedrock of an opera company because they provide an infusion of cash and confidence far ahead of performances and help the company do planning and pay bills. Many opera companies, for different reasons, have alienated subscribers, and this is part of why the economic factors of running opera companies are more challenging than ever.

Please give your opinions on the issues addressed in this article. Remember that it is not simply about how an empty seat might be used in a theater but that there is a relationship between that theater and its public that is deep, complex, and interdependent.

Photo: Patrons wait for rush tickets at Lincoln Center (Flickr/henrivzq)


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Comments [25]

Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, av.

Several years ago I was attending a performance of Carmen,at the Met, I had my usual left center aisle Family Circle seats with a friend I brought to the Opera on his first trip to New York City.
The performance had quite a few empty seats, at the beginning of the first intermission two young men moved from the upper level Family Circle seats to empty second row seats in front of us.
I might have let it rest but they began to talk quite loud and then to engage in same sex public displays of affection.
Finally I went to the usher and complained. In less than five minutes two burly plain clothes security gentleman came to the seats and escorted the couple from the house after they began to be quite confrontational. Ranting Queens would best describe them.
I think when people pay for seats they should not have the option to upgrade just because there are better empty seats available. It is quite unfair for those of us who pay for better seats to have squatters sit in front of us.
Regardless of their homosexual public displays I would have still called security as they had absolutely no right to take upgraded seats they did not pay for, their perverted behavior in public only exacerbated the felony. I may have a bad leg, but as a retired Air Force combat controller in shape from daily farm work they were lucky I did not remove them myself.
Keep the seats you pay for, the culture once inside an Opera house is far different from ghetto culture where populations feel they are entitled to things they have never worked for or paid for. Upgrading to unsold seats is akin to looting.
I always sit in Family circle at the Met, as I recall at age 16 while working weekends at The New York City main 42St Public Library, the staff member who I worked with in the stacks would bring a portable radio and listen to Milton Cross announce the Saturday Met matinees. He would then attend Sat. night performances sitting in Family Circle
My first trip to the new met whit him, I felt surrounded my old men in tweed jackets sitting in Family Circle, and now I just feel at home there even though today I am the old man in the tweed wool jacket in Family Circle.
Many acoustic studies have been done at the Met and Jay David Saks (sp?) the Mets long time radio and acoustics engineer feels that the best acoustics in the house are in the front of Family Circle. The sound has a chance to expand and mellow when it reaches the heights of Family Circle and becomes more dynamic in the upper tiers of the house. The only seats I could get at the last minute for my second go at Norma Nov, 1 were corner aisle seats in rear ocrhestra it will be interesting to take note of the sound differences as well as the time it take for me to get to the bar during intermission. God Music, God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Oct. 26 2013 10:22 PM
David from Flushing

The topic of this discussion will become more pressing as the Met Opera finds itself with more and more unsold seats. A recent article mentioned that the house is now down to 80% occupancy and it is likely that the most expensive seats are vacant.

I always thought that dynamic pricing meant that charges would decline as the date approaches as with standby flight tickets. Recently, I entered a discount bus line that operates in the opposite mode---the fare rises as the travel time nears. Whether or not the early bird should get the worm is a good debate.

Mar. 05 2013 08:06 PM
Jamie01 from grand tier (but paid for family circle)

Of course dynamic pricing already exists, on the secondary market (craigslist). I get almost all my opera tickets this way, and sometimes pay significantly less than face, and sometimes don't. It's my impression that many of these are 'house tickets' that are made available at substantial discount to people affiliated with the Met. Since I'm aware of how little arts management pays, I am OK if some schlub in their development department makes a little profit on this transaction.

And the revenue from an empty seat isn't affected by a standee moving down. Either it went unsold, or its purchaser didn't show. I think the motive to keep people from moving down isn't to avoid upsetting the people who paid retail for neighboring seats - it's to incentivize standees to pony up for an actual seat. It's hard to get people to pay for something they think they'll be able to get for free.

Jul. 30 2012 06:17 PM
Daniel Polowetzky from NYC

Whatever "agreement" holds between the purchaser of a ticket and the company selling it is anything but clear. Is there an explicit or implicit agreement? It may be in fine print on the back of the ticket. Otherwise, I have never been provided with a seating policy when attending any performance! Furthermore, given other pressing ethical problems of obvious greater importance, I have never given the "Opera Seating Moral Problem" much thought! I missed that section of Kant!

If I were to move to a more expensive unused seat and was told that this was against house policy, then I would comply with the request to move. On the other hand if changing seats elicits no opposition from the house, then I assume the company has no problem with it. Why would I think otherwise?

Jul. 28 2012 07:59 PM
S. L. Greene from UWS

I wholeheartedly concur with Henry's comment about the situation involving the woman with the "cheap perfume." First of all, her perfume was entirely irrelevant to the ethical question of whether she should have taken a seat she hadn't paid for. Fred, you had a perfect right to say, "Sorry, this seat is taken," which is what I would have done, but you didn't. That's your fault, not hers.

I think Darthur is wrong about the contract underlying standing room tickets. The Met has ASSIGNED standing room spaces, which are clearly indicated both on the tickets & on the spaces themselves. When I was much younger, I routinely bought tickets for Orchestra standing room at the Met. After the intermissions, in the minute or so between when the lights went down & the performance began, standees were allowed to take any empty seats they could find. The ushers didn't merely look the other way; they gave us the signal, which we waited for, to dash for the empty seats. This was clearly the management-approved protocol at the Met, & I assume it still is.

That said, I think all of this lucubration about the "ethics" of taking empty seats is rather ridiculous. It really isn't an issue of ethics at all; ettiquette, perhaps, but not ethics. Has the distinction between ethics & ettiquette been lost? If so, that's what we should be discussing, because that's a far more serious problem than empty seats.

Jul. 28 2012 06:46 PM
Nick from Milwaukee

Hi Fred, I am a subscriber at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and would consider giving up my subscription just to see if I got better pricing than those around me in my section. Lyric has a strong tradition of patrons donating tickets back if they cannot attend and therefore performances may be over 100% sold.I would worry that dynamic pricing may alienate these patrons. As a ticket holder one can easily exchange tickets for different sections or days, and this may become a game to improve seats as the time of the performance nears( although money may be made on transaction fees added)I do not think the opera houses should risk to appear like the airlines,but instead emphasize the durable value of these seats. Also I am not opposed to patrons occasionally moving to a better seat during a performance. In many cases(like mine) it motivated me to buy the best seats I can. Also there is no place for strong perfume in public areas whether it is the opera house or the gym.

Jul. 26 2012 10:37 PM
Fred Plotkin from Rush seat

Thanks, Beachsiggy and Darthur, for your insightful comments about "dynamic pricing." It is an issue all opera lovers will soon face and it may radically change the way people buy tickets. I am most concerned about the breakdown of faith and trust that will happen between opera companies and their subscriber base. If this happens, companies can no longer estimate their incomes and create realistic budgets. Other readers, please give your opinions about "dynamic pricing."

Jul. 26 2012 04:59 PM
Beachsiggy from NJ

Dynamic Pricing scheme - I first experienced this in San Francisco a season or two ago. I had hemmed and hawed about going to see a particular show, and when I finally broke down and bought my ticket (I am not a subscriber there, and this was my only performance of the season, and it was superstar casting), it cost $150. Ok, not knowing where exactly I would be sitting, since I had never been in the house before, I figured I could live with that.

Arriving in my seat on the occasion, which was nearly on the ceiling, I got to talking with my neighbors, as I usually do. I discovered that each person in the row had paid a different price for their seat, even those who said they were subscribers. Initially I found this curious, and was annoyed to learn I had paid substantially more than anyone else for my seat. Then I got to considering that I had purchased very late in the game, a single seat, and it was grasping for leftovers at the point when I was making my decision. So I can rationalize paying more, under those circumstances. I'm not as sure how to rationalize the variations in price experienced by my neighbors.

As a person who grew up in opera buying $4 student rush tickets at the Met, I suppose, over time, my personal price per seat would average out to something rational. So I don't mind it terribly.

However, if I were a patron at say the Met, and learned that everyone else in my $160 per seat area had gotten their seats on rush for $20 a pop, I would be highly irritated and might tend to consider discontinuing my subscribership, and/or lowering my membership level, since the house only considered my seat to be worth $20, and was therefore overcharging me for it by some huge percentage.

It's a can of worms we're opening, and how it plays out depends a lot on which side you're seeing it from. There are good things to be said, the house can discount a block of tickets for a target audience, and/or maybe sell out something that otherwise would play to a not full house; but you do run the risk, especially with not-particularly-stellar casts/performances, of really alienating the people you really need the most - the ones who buy pricey subscriptions and are also likely to give additional contributions on occasion. You're less likely to get additional support from someone who buys only rush or discounted tickets. But for a one-performance person in an out of town venue, or a let me try this, I can get in cheap type, dynamic pricing can work. Also for groups, schools and such. So maybe you need to be nicer to your patrons, and give them something special for their loyalty, to make up for ripping them off on their seats.

My 2 cents.

Jul. 26 2012 12:59 PM

@M.Plotkin - Many thanks. Won't know for a few months whether congrats are merited, but much appreciated. (Everything I've said here is ethical commentary on a matter of public concern, and consists of plain horse sense and reading the back of the ticket, by the way. It's ethical, not legal advice, and shouldn't be relied on in legal matters.)

As to dynamic pricing, I agree that it's going to be the next big thing. The good thing about it is that the theatre will generally be more full, as the producer will be able to price exactly to market. I see nothing wrong with pricing to premium, as Broadway now does, but as you point out, it does offend the schnook who paid face-plus, and Broadway is largely one-off tourists - very different from the fickle, long-memoried and recurrent NYC classical audiences.

There's an underappreciated duty on any noncommercial presenter or any presenter who receives public or charitable funds to fill every seat in the house - they've been given these public/charitable resources to present the art to as many people as possible. No one makes a bequest to the ballet in the hope of empty seats. The less-than-good thing about it is that it looks like the new model will evolve online, which will have an exclusionary effect on certain traditional sections of the classical audience, not to mention folks like me who consider buying a (cheap) seat five minutes before curtain while standing in an ornate lobby and holding a double espresso to be much more pleasant than a Blackberry being jolted with a buzz from a Gelb minion with an offer too good to refuse.

(Decline to speculate on the late arrival thing, having watched more than one opening scene/act on monitor in the hallway.)

None of that was legal advice, by the way, nor should it be relied upon.

- Mort

Jul. 26 2012 11:54 AM
Fred Plotkin

To Darthur: Congratulations on the bar exam. You might wish to read the back of tickets in different theaters and presenting organizations. The language is not identical. I have even seen tickets that say that if the person who purchased it does not arrive by the time the performance begins, he might not be entitled to the seat. Is that fair? Since you are of a legal bent, Darthur, tell us what you think of dynamic pricing, the issue that I addressed in the latter part of the article. Is it fair to change ticket prices at whim?

Jul. 26 2012 02:12 AM
Darthur from The _very_ upper west side

As someone who has within the past day finished taking the NYS bar exam (read: not yet a lawyer), and who knows the cheap seats and standing room at the Met, NYCB, and most B'way theatres very well, I'll weigh in on behalf of the unticketed seat-takers.

The ethos at the Met is that Orchestra standing room gets handed tickets by the early-escaping folks, but Family Circle is more of a spot-and-pounce situation. Although I never take the tix or pounce myself, there's nothing wrong with either -- a ticket is a revocable license (a permission), not an absolute right in any sense. The theatre and the standee have agreed that the standee is permitted to stand at the back of the theatre. They haven't agreed as a matter of contract that the standee should stand in a particular place -- the theatre has merely agreed to allow it, which doesn't foreclose the theatre either actually or constructively agreeing to an even better vantage for the standee.

A theatre exists for the purpose of presenting art. If there is an empty seat at the time of the performance (and by implication, the theatre's pricing model has not worked), in my utterly-as-yet-officially-unqualified-to-pronounce-on-questions-of-_law_ opinion, the standee is _ethically_ permitted to take it, so long as it is clearly not being used (the Family Circle folks tend to jump the gun on that), as the theatre presumably wishes everyone present at the performance to have the best vantage possible on the performance, so long as they do not impede or interfere with the vantages of others.

And I'll add that, as a member of the stage actors' union, I wholeheartedly encourage all such clambering towards the stage. It's why we make the art.

Jul. 26 2012 12:21 AM
Bernie from UWS

@Henry - agreed, there's a territorial aspect to this article, like: "let's keep certain people in their place in the concert hall." I remember being a student and forking out $12 for standing room tickets at the Met. We'd move down to empty seats after the first act and ushers completely looked the other way. Some of the old-guard ticket-holders gave us more casually-dressed whipper-snappers dirty looks. But they grudgingly accepted our presence for the rest of the opera (though none of us was wearing cheap cologne or perfume if that made a difference!).

Jul. 25 2012 08:03 PM
Fred Plotkin from Row X

To Henry and Colline, There is nothing snobby or elitist about this topic. Cheap perfume is cheap perfume no matter who is wearing it. And are you certain that I sit in fancy seats? I don't. The person who moved into the seat next to me was seated 4 rows back, in the same price category, so please don't romanticize that I am being hostile to a needy and deserving person. Why should I have to defend/protect the seat? This is why I believe that people should occupy the place they have purchased and if the theater management sees fit to move them, then they should be moved. And readers, you are not discussing the dynamic pricing part of this article, which will soon be more of an issue than seat-jumping, mark my words.

Jul. 25 2012 06:11 PM

I was thinking something along the lines of what Margaretlb described might happen.

I'd also like to point out, Fred, that in your empty seat example, the concert-goer was there (i.e. you). If you really wanted the empty seat, you should have told the woman that that seat was yours. You have no one to blame about that except yourself! Also, what’s up with the snobby insinuations about the cheap perfume? Have you never met any rich people with bad taste or that like to upgrade for free? Just after college while working as an usher at a large summer music festival in NY, I sure did.

Jul. 25 2012 05:47 PM

Does anyone else get a strong elitist vibe from this stupid question? Why not let someone who can’t afford a fancy seat get a treat if there’s an empty seat. Did Fred ever experience being a poor opera lover? What would he say to Mimi and Rodolfo if they slipped into a couple of empty seats next to him?

Jul. 25 2012 05:41 PM

A friend of mine disappeared during a performance at the Royal Opera House. We thought she went to the ladies room, but she didn't come back. She was snooping and found an unlocked door, which she realized was the (surprizingly unattended) Royal Box. I guess she just couldn't help herself and watched the rest of the performance there, undetected.....Ethical-maybe not-but if you're going to play musical chairs at the opera, why not the Queen's seats?....and she did find the ladies room-the adjacent Victorian Royal Loo-and there wasn't a line.

I normally wouldn't presume to use someone else's seat (or cheap perfume) and I do love the idea of being generous and giving your tickets to someone else if you are not attending or staying for the entire performance.

Jul. 25 2012 05:39 PM
Fred Plotkin

David, It might not have been clear to you that the woman with the cheap perfume sat in a sit that I had purchased a ticket for. Shouldn't I have the right to do what I wish with that seat? I agree with Pam and Dan: perfume of all kinds can be overwhelming. If someone has asthma or other respiratory problems, such a smell is not just a disturbance but can really make someone sick. Even if they do not have asthma, it is still quite annoying. If the fragrant person has purchased the ticket for the seat, then the person who is being affected might have to contact an usher or the house manager. But if the fragrant person sits in a seat for which someone else holds a ticket, that simply is not acceptable. READERS: Please give your opinions about the dynamic pricing questions I raised at the end of the article. You might wind up being affected by this trend. Do you think it is a breach of faith to adjust prices at the moment or simply making hay while the sun shines?

Jul. 25 2012 05:37 PM
David from NY

Relax, Fred! I know its unpleasant to sit next to someone with cheap perfume, but that annoying lass could just as well be subscriber as an 'upgrader!'

Let's discuss more important issues.

Jul. 25 2012 04:43 PM
Ciccina from Manhattan

I went to the ballet the other night, only to have a very tall gentleman sit in front of me and block the view. There was a vacant seat two rows up from me on the aisle, so I moved. The view was partially obstructed by a railing, but at least I saw the ballet. No regrets, only annoyance that a rather expensive ticket provides no guarantee that one will actually see the performance.

Jul. 25 2012 04:21 PM
Dan Hirsen from Chicago

Strong perfumes are not the only odor that can be offensive to a nearby concert or theater patron, whether a seat was paid for or not.

Jul. 25 2012 02:24 PM
Margaretlb from Staten IslandNY

I am a late-to-opera fan and purchased my first opera subscription for the 2010-11 season. Indeed, the subscription was purchased on "faith" as I had never actually attended a live opera before. So, I subscribed to Family Circle (prime) seats. Well, I loved live opera and actually purchased a couple of additional operas to attend. One of those was on a cold, dismal Tuesday night and the theatre had many, many empty seats. So, after intermission I changed my seat to last row Balcony. I could not believe how much better even that last row seat was. Result, for the 2011-12 season I purchased Balcony Prime - for 2012-13, Balcony Premium. So, although I felt really strange taking that empty seat the final result is that I am now purchasing a more expensive subscription. I don't mean to justify swiping that seat but just wanted to relate that it could result in something positive for the Company.

Jul. 25 2012 01:58 PM

I've never done it. I've always been afraid of tripping, rolling down the steps and over the balcony railing. But I have always felt like a fool for not doing it.

Jul. 25 2012 01:01 PM

Please do recommend to your readers to curtail the use of perfumes, or other highly scented toiletries, when attending a performance that has assigned seating. Please be considerate of your neighbors. Some people have allergies. Thank You.

Jul. 25 2012 12:45 PM
kayk from NJ

To Todd Fox's point, the theater isn't getting any revenue from that unsold seat whether or not somebody moves from the back row into it at halftime. Plus then the performers aren't looking out at empty seats. I don't see a problem with upgrading at halftime, especially in largely undersold performances.

Jul. 25 2012 12:29 PM
Ken Kirsh

OK, it wasn't an opera it was the broadway production of "Hair", sitting in the audience were the three original astronauts(Shepard, Glenn and Grisolm) and their families and when the players started the song "Red, White Blue and Yellow" while embracing the American flag in their hands all astronauts and their families got up and walked out of the theater in protest. Immediately those seats were occupied by other members of the audience. Fred, I know this really doesn't address the question you posed but I thought it appropriate and I've been wanting to tell this story for a very long time. Hey c'mon its a blog isn't it? I was in the theater that night and remember it vividly.

Jul. 25 2012 02:43 AM

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