Save Me from Theater Seat-Selection Panic
January 22, 2020 6:17 PM   Subscribe

When purchasing tickets to an event, how do I find a good-enough seat?

I attend theatrical performances approximately once or twice a year, and every time I am purchasing tickets, I realize that I have no idea which seats I should be trying for. Maybe it's very specific to the venue (size, seating configurations, and things like that), but I'm wondering if there is even just some basic wisdom that savvy theater-goers use when selecting seats. Orchestra preferable? Balcony? Middle of the row or always on the end?

The types of performances I'm talking about are generally traditional plays in which the actors are facing front or, more rarely, a 1-person spoken event like a large-venue comedy show. Seating capacity ranges from 150 seats to 2,500.

I always panic and pick the first available seats in my price range (labeled "best seats available" by the seating algorithm) but am wondering if I could be making better decisions or taking other important factors into account? I also usually try to select seats in the middle (meaning as "center" placement as I can get, from left to right, so that I am viewing the stage head-on) and avoid any obstructed views. I'm sure this is all hopelessly dependent on venue and much about personal preference, but I'd really appreciate any advice or guiding wisdom (or assurances that I am, once again, overthinking things).
posted by dreamphone to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a vote for you may be overthinking things.

Think of it this way: You've attended many shows at this point, and you've had a variety of seats at these shows. Has the location of the seat ever had a big impact on your enjoyment or appreciation of the show? If not, then you have evidence that the choice of seat doesn't make a large difference. If you do have some examples of experiences that were harmed by the seat choice, look at why those seats were bad, and avoid those specific characteristics in the future.

Now, I'm approaching this from a satisficer perspective (in the "satisficer vs maximizer" concept), whereas you seem to be taking a maximizing/optimizing approach. So my advice might only work if you're comfortable shifting your feelings about this on that spectrum. If that doesn't work for you, then no worries; someone else can probably give you great advice on how to find the absolute best seats. :)
posted by whatnotever at 6:29 PM on January 22, 2020 [5 favorites]

I think your description pretty much has the right idea.

If I'm trying to save money, I'll buy anything that doesn't have an obstructed view.

Sometimes front orchestra seats cost less than stuff a little further back, but as far as I'm concerned they are just as good or better.
posted by grouse at 6:32 PM on January 22, 2020

Best answer: I'm a maximizer by default, and I agree with whatnotever that maximizing TO THE MAX oftentimes does not lead to maximum happiness. That said, if I may humbly share what I tend to do when I purchase tickets:

I'll see what seats/pricing the ticketing site will offer, and then do a quick search for the venue's seating (e.g., I just did this with the Palace Theatre in London by googling "palace theatre london seating") and if the venue is large or popular enough, they will oftentimes have reviews for specific seats. For example, this site came up as the first hit for that google search and it has user reviews and sometimes user-submitted photos for the seat. This site was super helpful for me in deciding what I was okay with and what I wasn't. I just tried this with the Kennedy Center and the Orpheum and was pleasantly surprised to find multiple websites that provide seat reviews. I also like to skim the reviews briefly on TripAdvisor for the venue because that will help set expectations. Usually then I'll have enough info to make a cost-benefit analysis/trade-off judgment for myself to buy the tickets.

If you're the type to get hopelessly stuck in a rabbit-hole, I find it helpful to give myself a time limit ("okay, sums, you can only spend 10 minutes on this and then you have to make a decision!") so that I can move on with my life. And at the end of the day, we will enjoy the performance for what it is!
posted by sums at 6:40 PM on January 22, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: If you can get an "inside aisle" seat, you will have an unobstructed view. By this I mean (assuming a theater with two aisles) the innermost seat of one of the two outer sections. You will be viewing the stage at a slight angle, but you will be looking slightly across the aisle where no one is sitting in front of you.
posted by Dolley at 6:55 PM on January 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

I can only share the mindset I go into this with, take from it anything that is useful to you: If I am going to buy a ticket, park, put on decent pants, whatever, my objective is to experience the performance in the room in real time. You can do that anywhere in the room. There will be great seats, good seats, and shitty seats; for each performance there's a break point for me where it's worth it to even attend, and I no longer buy seats worse than that break point because I'll resent the time and money. There are also very high break points, like I will buy tickets if I can get spectacular seats, but this is going to show up on a streaming service eventually otherwise and I can watch that with surround sound and pajama pants.

But there are also low break points. I'd just like to give the entity my money and be there. Maybe this show is my turn to sit back and be satisfied in meh seats and let someone else have their turn at a really great experience, or in my case because I live in LA to let rich fucks have the swank seats and I'm still going to pay an unspeakable amount of money for shit seats but still inside the venue for something I really really want to be present for. (Hello, Alanis/Garbage/Liz Phair at the Hollywood Bowl.)

Some of this is informed by being Gen X, where my white-hot event-attending years required you to sit on a sidewalk outside Sears at 6am and you took one of three price level choices when you got to the window and you sat wherever those tickets were. In the later years you called the Ticketmaster number over and over again until it stopped ringing busy and someone answered, and again you maybe had two or three vague options depending on what you wanted to spend. Productions, even tiny ones, spend a LOT of time and effort planning their show for the house(s) they're in. I have seen some great shows from okay seats, no regrets, and work had been done to make that possible.

So there are still pretty crap seats, but very few are objectively terrible, and you can be seated in the best front row seat next to someone with a persistent cough and a shirt that smells like mothballs got body odor. It's always a crapshoot, but the odds are in your favor.

You seem pretty unfazed by some of the strong preferences I have - I'll sit quite a ways farther back to get an aisle seat, for example, as I'm a little claustrophobic and I prefer the extra oxygen of an aisle and it is now possible to pick literally the exact seat you're going to get, so I do. So you can accept that there's a very predictable pattern to "good" and "bad" seats in the house and the most important math is your personal preferences, which might be extremely different from show to show. If your goal is just to be in the room, and everything else is gravy, you can have a good time anywhere.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:22 PM on January 22, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: For me it depends on the show. For an intimate show with quieter dialogue, I like sitting closer so I can easily focus on the performers' eyes. For a spectacular show with choreography, I like sitting further away so I can see each performer's whole body without having to pan my head at all. From that distance I can really appreciate the stage picture that all the bodies make together, and their volume if they're singing or projecting doesn't feel overwhelming.

For all shows, I prefer sitting in the middle of the house, so my view of the stage is "symmetrical". If I have to pick based just on a single criterion, I'll choose a seat in the centre of the theatre no matter what distance it's at.

And I guess for a really simple answer, I'd say my favourite seat would be in the centre of a row, about one-third to one-half of the way back in the theatre. This is where many directors and stage managers typically sit during most rehearsals (I mean, they move around, for sure, but that's the easy spot where they can see everything and also be easily heard by the actors)... so the stage picture is often balanced really well for that vantage point, and the actors often kind of "calibrate their levels" to play sweetly to that spot.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 9:24 PM on January 22, 2020

Meh, I've sat all over the place and I don't think it's a big deal as long as you're not obstructed by the view (one circular theater I go to in town, wherever you go, you are behind a post) or way too far back to see the action. Some shows may have that as an issue, but sometimes the venue will make sure to have the action broadcast on a giant screen so even the plebes in the back can still see. I wouldn't say to sit in the dead back row of a large theater because that is about as crap as it can get (I saw Wicked from the dead last row at the Orpheum, I admit this was not great), but it wouldn't be a big deal to be in the dead back row of a small one.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:50 PM on January 22, 2020

IME, newer theatres are better at having "no bad seats", while older venues can vary a lot. I do check venue review sites like TheatreMonkey for seat advice - especially as a wider person who goes out with a tall person, knowing which seats offer the best leg-room is a lifesaver.

Centre is best for view, but aisle and sometimes the front/back row of a section can be best for comfort.
posted by Glier's Goetta at 2:40 AM on January 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

In my experience the Best Available algorithm rarely steers me wrong unless I have a specific preference (ie. if it's not a crowded performance, maybe I want to be surrounded by empty seats).

The best seats are usually front of the balcony or in the orchestra--I find that anywhere in the orchestra is equally find unless I have specific needs (aisle seat b/c of my mom's knee; sitting up close because one of my party is low vision).

I have tried to beat the "best available" algorithm and never succeeded, so I finally gave up trying.
posted by gideonfrog at 4:26 AM on January 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

I always just go for closest to center that I can get—if I can afford orchestra than usually anything center and a little in the middle (first few rows can obstruct the lower stage, really far back rows can sound worse and have potential mezzanine obstruction) are best. And usually the first few rows of mezzanine center are just as good as some orchestra center seats, depending on how “large” the spectacle can be, the current Moulin Rouge Broadway show for example. I just see what I can find closest to those areas in my price range.

Then I check View from my Seat and I can usually get a sense of what my view will be like. People will post photos or mention obstructions.
posted by sprezzy at 9:04 AM on January 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

Once you've been to a performance space a few times, you'll have a better feel for it, but: if there's a way to buy tickets by phone through a local box office, you can usually discuss your needs and preferences with them and get some better answers than a simple seating chart would offer. I've gotten useful feedback on seating where I won't have bright lights (from exit signs and such) distracting me from the stage.
posted by asperity at 9:36 AM on January 23, 2020

Nthing the "view from this seat" series of websites. Some of them will actually have views for the particular stage/curtain configuration for a certain performance.

This was really helpful when I was trying to get very late tickets to a very popular broadway musical in my town. All the good tickets were gone but a little research showed a nice pair of "obstructed" view seats were flagged that way because a side balcony hid 2% of the stage. That's a deal breaker for some people, but I got an awesome closeup view and didn't care about the 10 seconds of performance I could hear but not see.
posted by JoeZydeco at 10:04 AM on January 23, 2020

Sound (since it travels slower than light) is balanced for the center seat of the center row. This is particularly true for movie theaters where it becomes a matter of getting the lip-sync correct, esp in a large theater. (Though I tend to sit a few rows further back so I'm not having to look side to side like I'm at a tennis match) For music and stage shows, the sound guys usually work from this location during staging/rehearsal because getting the stereo/levels/etc sounding best there means that there will be the least amount of distortion/etc at the corners of the room.
posted by sexyrobot at 5:30 AM on January 24, 2020

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