We’re delighted to present this guest blog from our friend Ariel Franklin-Hudson, who is interning and ushering at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater this year.
SCENE: The American Conservatory Theater, a.k.a. the Geary, a theater,which celebrated its 98th birthday last month. It was remodeled in the early 1990s, and is “fully accessible.” It has 1,040 seats. All the seats are narrow, like airplane seats, and they can be very uncomfortable for larger people. Most of the complaints I get are about leg room, and come from tall men sitting in the first balcony.
The theater is glamorous. The boxes on either side of the orchestra and the first balcony have larger, wider chairs and additional leg room, but they don’t have very good sight lines. A pair of elderly ladies came in. One knew where her seat was; the other was probably senior rush. She moved slowly, used a cane, and was fat. A little while later, in a lull, she called me over:
LADY: Can I ask you something?
LADY: Is there such a thing as fat seats?
I wondered — even in the moment — if she was only daring to ask me because I’m fat, too.
ME: Yeah, the seats are kind of terrible, aren’t they?
LADY: They are.
ME: The best thing to do is to ask for one of the boxes. They have actual chairs instead of silly theater seats, and they’re a lot wider. The only thing is that they have really terrible sight lines, so you can’t see the show nearly as well. Aisle seats are also a little better.
LADY: Can I move to the aisle if the people next to me don’t come?
ME: Of course!
LADY: Thank you.
As I seated the oncoming hordes, I thought about the lady. Her question had sounded more like “what should I do next time?” than “please help me now,” but thinking about it more, I suggested reseating her in a box and she agreed immediately, despite my warning about the sight lines.
ME: Is this better?
LADY: Thank you! This is so much better! I don’t think I could have sat through the whole show in the other seat! The leg room and wider seat really makes a difference!
ME: Oh good! Well, you’re welcome! Enjoy the show! And next time you can just ask the box office for a box seat.
After the show, she was one of the last people to leave. Her friend met her at the door and encouraged her to hurry, but the lady was digging in her purse.
FRIEND: What are you doing?
LADY: I’m looking for something for this nice young lady.
ME: Oh! You don’t have to do that!
LADY: I’ve never had anyone do that for me before, help me out like that. Thank you so much. (She handed me a ten-dollar bill. I accepted it graciously.)
ME: Thank you. You really didn’t have to do that, but thank you.
LADY: Thank you.
Probably, any usher would have re-seated her – provided there were available seats – because she was elderly, she had a cane, and she moved pretty slowly. Not helping the disabled (and even not helping the disabled first) is a big, huge, horrific black mark in the ushering book. As it should be.
But on the other hand, she phrased it as a size issue, and while I’d like to think that a) we don’t treat size as a disability and b) we still prioritize it as a genuine concern, I’m not sure that either of those things is true. The seats are hellishly uncomfortable if you don’t fit in them, tall, fat, old, whatever. But I think that society would say that it’s her fault that she’s fat and can’t fit into the seats; it’s not her fault that she’s old and disabled, and needs to sit somewhere that won’t hurt her legs. And consequently, it’s less our job to help the fat lady than it is to help the disabled lady or the old lady. I wonder if she dared to ask me because I’m fat. And I wonder what would have happened if she had asked someone else.
I’d like to think that anyone would have helped her, but I don’t know how my co-workers think about body image; I don’t know whether the “help the patron with a problem,” instinct would have trumped the societal reaction to fat. We almost never get seat size complaints. We get leg-room complaints all the time, but they’re mostly from tall people, mostly men. So maybe it’s a gender issue, too. I wonder how much attention my co-workers have paid to the fact that the box seats are wider and more comfortable, and that, more often than not, the patrons in the boxes are fat. I wonder if any of them, hearing her ask for “fat seats,” would have thought beyond “I’m afraid there aren’t any, but I can try to move you to an aisle.”
The essential question is whether or not you, as a patron, are brave enough to ask for help when you’re uncomfortable. The vast majority of people – regular theatergoers, anyway – know that theater seats are uncomfortable, and are willing to suck it up. Asking to be re-seated is the equivalent of sending your meal back in a restaurant because you don’t like it. But asking to be moved because you’re disabled, or fat, or tall, is more like sending your meal back because it has lots of cheese on top, and the menu didn’t say it would, and you’re lactose intolerant. And generally the cooks and waitresses – and ushers – get that, and are sorry, and do their best to help fix the problem, even if they whine about it later, because our jobs are service jobs, and the people who need help are, more often than not, really apologetic about asking for it.
Two things bother me. First, if tall people can complain, fat people should be able to complain with equal clout. Second, as she was tipping me she mentioned that “no one had ever done that for her before.” Maybe she’d never felt comfortable enough to ask for help, before. Maybe she’d only ever asked for help when the house was too full, or in theaters without convenient box seats and wider-aisled wheelchair seats. Or maybe she had asked for help in a similar situation, and not gotten it. And in that case, did she not get the help because the usher was a bad usher, or difficult, or having a bad day, or did she not get the help because she phrased it as a size issue, because it was a size issue?
In the end, I’m grateful for the tip. But I’m also worried about a world in which what I did might not be the norm.