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21st century experience in a Victorian Theatre

June 17, 2019

The Victorian theatres were designed to maximise the revenue, by squeezing in as many seats as possible. But would the visitor experience have been better in the late 1800s?

I recently managed to book some very cheap tickets for a popular West End show. The theatre has a capacity of well over 1,000 and was built at the end of 1800s, as many of the London theatres were.

My seats were in the Balcony, above the Circle. Whilst ascending the stairs to my seat I felt uncomfortable, I felt that I might fall. I am particularly sensitive to heights and the steep climb made me feel slightly clumsy, disorientated and scared. The seats, which were very narrow, provided a minimum amount of space for my legs; it made me wonder whether I had actually booked a child’s seat (below an image of my constrained legs).

I started to think about how the dimension of the seat, the viewing angle and the density of seats all affect visitor experience?

J Strong notes in her book “Theatre Buildings, A Design Guide” that it is common practice to modernise old theatres, especially those ones built before WWII to ensure compliance with current legislation, specifically access and safety requirements.

The Victorian theatres were designed to maximise the revenue, by squeezing in as many seats as possible. But would the visitor experience have been better in the late 1800s? Perhaps it was, because the average adult height has increased by almost 10 cm in the last 100 years [1]. The Victorians would probably have been more comfortable in their seats, but they would still have faced the same challenge of negotiating the stairs to and from their seats.  

There are alternatives to the very expensive full theatre modernisation project, for example, increasing the height of each seat, which would provide some additional leg room. This small change could have a big impact on the overall experience for some visitors.

Movement Strategies has advised a number of theatre owners and operators, as well as many other types of entertainment venues, developing proposals to improve visitor experience. The objectives of a typical study may include the analysis of toilet provision, the optimisation of concessions for the pre-show interval periods, planning improved ticketing and security check processes or analysing the egress capacity for both normal and emergency scenarios.

[1] https://ourworldindata.org/human-height

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