"...I’ve long thought it would be a good idea if critics were dispersed throughout the auditorium in seats at a range of prices. Would this be a good idea?" - Keith, Ongar
You might think it was a good idea and I might think it was a good idea but I very much doubt that critics, artists and PRs would concur. In fact, I can hear the howls of outrage at the mere suggestion.
I reckon that just as any politician worth their salt should ensure that they knew the price of a pint of milk and a loaf of bread (and go out to buy them on occasion) an in-touch critic should know how much a ticket for the seat they are sitting in would have cost if they had bought it themselves. Even better if they do sometimes buy seats and go to the theatre as a punter, not a critic.
It does us critics good to see shows from a less than advantageous position in the theatre because it reminds that the experience from the middle of row F in the stalls is going to be markedly different from Row F in the upper circle. Most of our theatre auditoria were not designed with democracy in mind.
Now I completely understand why having worked upon a play for so long why the director and all involved want critics to see it from the seat that offers the best view. No PR is going to countenance giving Quentin Letts a less than advantageous sight of the stage. It would feel like self-sabotage. As it is, some critics seem to calculate their entire self-worth entirely on the basis of where have been seated, huffing and harumphing if a colleague from another outlet has what they perceive to be better seat. Oh, do grow up.
Nonetheless it puzzling the way apparently intelligent directors pitch their production to the middle of the 10th row of the stalls and are then surprised when those sitting in the cheaper seats disengage.
It’s unsurprising when parties of school children are disruptive in the theatre; they are used to seeing TV and movies close-up on screen so it’s no surprise that their attention isn’t held if they are watching a show in the theatre that for all the world looks as if it is being viewed through the wrong end of a telescope.
Some argue that sitting in seats as youngster from which they could only see the top of the actors’ heads didn’t stop them becoming devoted to theatre, but perhaps that was because life in the 1970s was so dull even spotting a bald patch was a thrill. That’s no longer the case today, and in any case that argument quickly leads to a slippery one that goes “well when I was a nipper I was thrashed twice an week and it didn’t do me any harm at all.”
So yes, the gap between the conditions in which most critics view a show and where the majority of the audience view it is a big one, and there are plenty of times when I have caught up on a show from a less than advantageous seat and wondered what happy juice the critics were on when they reviewed that particular show so rapturously.
You may suggest that the solution to this is to get critics and the publications they write for to purchase their own tickets for shows they review. Of course, that is what many already writing about theatre on many digital platforms already do. But while it seems like a good idea, I wonder when at a time when theatre coverage is in decline in so many outlets whether that would cut the column inches further. To be current and relevant, theatre needs to be part of wider cultural conversations, and what is reviewed tends to be most valued.
Nonetheless, the question that you raise Keith is a vital one, because if that conversation is always kicked off by those sitting in the priciest seats in the house, it may not serve theatre best in the longer run.
Cover image of Royal Opera House. Photo by Gabriel Varaljay on Unsplash.