The Evolution of Theatre Seating

Emma Evans

When it comes to theatre seating, you have to wonder where to start. The stone benches of the Amphitheatre in Rome … the stalls of the Globe? Humanity has been watching plays and spectacles for thousands of years and we tend to do it seated. Theatre seating has evolved to meet that need.

Elizabethan Theatre

The seed and idea of the theatre as we know it really came to exist during the Shakespearian period, with the booming interest and celebrity of theatre coming to huge importance under Elizabeth I, with theatres springing up around the country, in order to house plays that would remain popular for the next five hundred years.

The most famous playhouse in all of England was, of course, The Globe. This was built in the traditional round theatre style of its day with as comfortable seating as could be constructed, using fabulous materials and cushioning for the rich, and the dirt floor for the poor.

The stalls directly in front of the theatre were filled with standing audience members, generally poor Elizabethans. It seems amazing that there was a time where people would watch theatre standing, for literally hours on end.

As we moved towards the industrial revolution, theatres where the audience faced the stage became much more commonplace and seating became steadily more important.

Victorian to Twenties Theatre

Building and technical innovations during the industrial revolution and the measures that had to be put in place to take into account the millions of people flocking to cities, allowed the Victorians to put more effort, elegance and design into their theatres than ever before.

It was here baroque, classical and gothic styles of design and architecture flourished, being exaggerated and explored limitlessly. Theatres have always provided a home to arts of all kinds and in these times the arts were the pursuit of the rich, meaning theatres had to be opulent enough to seat them and keep them occupied.

Therefore, the seating that theatres tended to provide for the rich was of the plushest, most comfortable kind imaginable, with satin and silk covers and cushions. As you descended the stalls, seating became less and less comfortable, till you hit the pews and benches still in use for the poorest audience, generally and curiously, right in front of the stage.

While a definite improvement from Shakespearian times, attending the theatre as a member of the lower working class still wasn’t entirely to be recommended in Victorian times, in comfort levels at least. There wasn’t too much other entertainment going however.

As we headed into the 19th century, with its architectural movements of Bauhaus and Art Deco, theatres continued to be viewed as a chance to explore the more extreme architectural fantasies of the day and time.

The inside remained just as opulent and beautiful as ever, with one exception. Quality seating became more and more standardised throughout the venue. No longer did the rich sit on satin cushions while the poor sat on rough wooden benches. Now standardised seating became commonplace.

The Varied Modern Theatre

Despite the often-astounding sumptuousness of the theatres and their seating that had come before, many modern theatres reject the notion of decadent, over the top designs and styles when it comes to their building and their seating.  

Having said that, many older theatres of earlier art deco designs are kept open and maintained beautifully, replete with all the gold detailing, frescos, plasterwork and plush seating that your heart could desire. While many plays and acts are still staged within classic theatres like this today, they are not representative of the modern theatre.

The typical modern-built theatre is not limited by archaic notions of grandeur but instead allows the productions to take centre stage. As such the theatre itself tends to play second fiddle and aim simply to function well and not distract.

The kinds of seating you can imagine in this setting tend to vary hugely. From some still fairly plush, cushioned options, often in a fold-down format, for sheer convenience and ease of maintenance, all the way to basic stackable chairs, in the most cutting-edge of pop-up theatres.

There are a great many amateur dramatics societies around the country nowadays and their smaller theatres tend to err on the side of complete functionality, letting the acting speak entirely for itself.

Stackable seating has its uses in modern theatres as it allows the space to effectively double as a dance area for musical acts and it allows you to convert huge stadiums into seated arenas and theatres.

Image credit: Stacking Chairs