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

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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)