Fat, Courtesy, and Theater Seating

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.

Ariel says:

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?
ME: Certainly.
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.

fat, theater, size acceptance, body image, ushering, Body Impolitic

16 thoughts on “Fat, Courtesy, and Theater Seating

  1. This is precisely the reason I don’t go to the movie theaters. I’ve had to sit through movies in acute discomfort because the seats are too small and there isn’t anywhere else to sit unless I bring my own folding chair (then I could sit in the wheelchair spaces, provided no one with a wheelchair is sitting there). I’d rather buy the dvd and watch it at home in comfort.

  2. there is a local theater here in the chicago area that i have been boycotting for about ten years now because one night my ex and i went to the theater there and the seats were so uncomfortable, i almost lost all the feeling in my legs. usually i can fit under the arm of a chair but the arms of the chairs in this theater were these little dowels that were too close to the seat and cut into me. god that was horrible. i sent them a letter telling them that i would never set foot in their theater again and telling them why.

    the sad irony by the way, is that i lost weight during that divorce and i would probably fit in those seats, but i don’t care. they designed that theater stupidly and they don’t deserve my custom.

  3. My fiance and I are both large actors, and therefore see a LOT of theatre. I’m desperately hoping that theatres start creating larger seats for the orchestra and mezzanine. I’m not that terribly uncomfortable alone, but my fiance is roughly the size of Andre the Giant, and he needs to be a contortionist to get in and out. And forget about elbow room when we sit together! Discomfort to the max. I’ve never sat in a box before, though, which we may look into (too bad sight lines ARE so bad). What you did for the lady was only right–but I agree, the fact that she seemed afraid to ask was sad. Fat people should NOT be ashamed of discomfort in theatres….everyone suffers there!

  4. This is not only a story with a happy ending, which I appreciate, but also a help to me in case I ever want to go back to ACT. I went there a while ago when I was smaller than I am now and I had enough trouble fitting into the seat then.

    Most of the movie theaters I go to have remodeled and now have entire rows of seats with arms that can be raised. If it’s been a long time since you tried going to a movie theater, and you want to, you might try calling your local theater and asking about the seats.

  5. In a local Toledo theater, there are some seats that have removable arms, but they are few, and when you specifically ask for them when you buy tickets, the totally untrained ticket vendors DON’T know what you are talking about. TWICE, they have sold me the wrong tickets for those seats. It’s bad enough that theaters are designed to squeeze in as many sardine-like customers as possible to maximize the dollars, but they also hire the cheapest/dumbest people they can find to sell their tickets.

  6. Swt Jss, y ft fcks cntn t mz m. Y ctll cst blm n th mv thtrs bcs y’v tn yrslf t f nrml stng sz. tht’s s hlris. Pls vd thtrs. D wht Vst ds nd wtch DVD’s t hm. Th lss ft ppl n pblc th bttr.

    NOTE: This rude, name-calling comment has been disemvoweled. The commenter is not only rude and misinformed, s/he also seems to be unable to tell the difference between live theater and the movies.

  7. I rarely go to live theater, and when I see a movie, it’s in the comfort of Oakland’s Parkway Theater. (Comfortable sofas, good pizza, and $5 movies. Who could ask for more?)

    Classroom seating is the most serious issue I’ve encountered. Those damned tiny desk/chair combos are not designed for my body; I cannot jam my way into them. When I was taking a career-aptitude class at DeAnza College, I was lucky enough to find a separate wooden desk and table where I could sit — clearly it had been set up for students with disabilities. But I’ve been at writers’ conferences where there was literally nowhere for me to sit. It’s humiliating.

  8. I would imagine that fat people don’t complain partly because audience seats are audience seats (“what do you expect us to do, rebuild the place?”) and partly because of the whole Fat Fatty McFat can’t even fit into a seat thing.

    I have a friend who’s in an instrumental ensemble at Johns Hopkins, and I love going to watch her play. At Christmas my husband and I both went there to see her in Beethoven’s 9th. We were both miserable the whole time because we simply didn’t fit into the seats. It wasn’t just a height thing, either – I’m 5’7″, pretty average, and my knees were pressed painfully into the joints of the seats in front of me I couldn’t even put my legs straight in front of me, but had to sit splay-legged. Hubby couldn’t do the same with his knees because I was occupying one of his two seat-joint-things, so he had to sit with both knees crammed into the other joint. It was awful. Being fat just made it worse. Who do they make these seats for, Lilliputians?

  9. This is a comment from Weightlessone that got eaten by our spam filter.

    “I’m glad to see that there is someone else out there who is conscious of uncomfortable theatre seating. I work in the arts and as a result, I attend quite a few theatre, dance, music, etc. performances in a number of venues. I’m a size 32 and 5 foot 6. I started a list to help fat people in my area (Baltimore) have an idea what they are in for when they visit a venue. I call it my Hip-Bruise-Factor Seating Scale list. I still have plans to carry a tape measure with me and actually measure the seats, but when I first started the list I did most of it from memory. When you walk away from a performance venue (or airplane) with large bruises on your hips, you don’t tend to forget how uncomfortable the seating was.

    I firmly believe that the arts should be available to everyone regardless of size, shape, ability, ethnicity, economic situation, gender, etc. Grantors and government are always speaking of their concerns for accessiblity when it comes to the arts and in general they are talking about accessibility for handicapped individuals. In this situation I think accessiblity should refer to size as well. Of course, I’m always the one who tells those who have horribly uncomfortable seating in their offices that they need chairs without arms. I did this in a bank recently and had someone laugh at me because I wouldn’t sit in the painful seat offered to me, but then they realized I was absolutley serious when I said they needed fat-friendly seating and they apologized.

    Kudos to Ariel for going the extra mile to make sure someone was able to actually enjoy a performance instead of spending it wriggling around trying to avoid the pain of sitting in a too-small seat.”

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  11. The trouble with seats without arms is that some people with balance-related impairments need seats *with* arms. So you would need the venue to have some of each, i guess…

    As a tall-ish, thin person with joint pain in my knees i sympathise, although my discomfort is of a completely different type, coming from the need and inability to stretch my legs out in front of me. What’s actually ideal for me is a room where ordinary chairs are set out in rows, as opposed to built-in seating in rooms designed specifically as a theatre, because then i can stretch my legs out under the chair of the person in front of me. It seems to me that that scenario would be the best for wider-than-average people (because the distance between the chairs can be changed), and for wheelchair users (because some chairs can easily be moved away, and this can be done wherever you want), so, if there were chairs both with and without arms available, that would be pretty much ideal for everyone…

    The only solution i can think of for big amphitheatre-type set-ups (big multiplex cinemas, big purpose-built theatres, lecture theatres) is for some rows to be church-style pews with no divisions between separate seats – but i can imagine that being resisted because of bureacracy, automated ticket sales etc requiring capacity to be a fixed number of people.

    So, yay small/improvised venues and boo big purpose-built ones, basically… DIY culture equals the best accessibility, IMO…

  12. I don’t think that you can equate being tall with being fat. Being tall is a factor of genetics, being fat is a factor of ingesting more calories than you expend. One you have no input in, the other is totally within your control.

    That said, I agree with you about seating. I am tall with bad knees and hips. Theater seating is such a nightmare for me that I tend to just avoid it.

  13. My problem is not that theatre seats are too small, but that they are too big! The depth of the seats (front to back) are too long (meant for people with longer legs than mine). This means that I have to perch on the end of the seat, with no support for my back. If I sit further back in the seat, the edge of the seat presses painfully against the back of my knees (that’s if my knees reach!), and if I sit with my back fully against the back of the seat (supporting my spine), because my feet are no longer on the floor, my legs are not heavy enough to hold the seat down and the seat rises, basically jack-knifing me! So I have to perch on the edge of the seat with a my jacket/coat stuffed behind me. Very painful experience after a couple of hours.
    How do children manage? They often kneel up on the seat, or have the seat up, and perch on the top (getting in the view of the person behind).
    Has anyone invented a portable seat cushion that could be used by small people?

  14. My sister and I encountered the impossible when we heard that Earth, Wind and Fire detoured from their tour schedule to perform in our hometown. Naturally, we secured two tickets and anticipated an exciting night. The minute we were seated, the moment was overcome with instant pain; from the inability to move one inch left or right to find comfort, to being anxious about the onslaught of pain we would endure should people be seated in the row ahead of us, causing our knees further pain. As the theater filled, we continued to survey the room for any type of relief, which we ultimate did by going up to the very back of the theater where I sat on the stairwell and my sister took a chair in the very last row along the wall so she could stretch her legs out. Though it’s everyone’s worse nightmare to be seated so far away from the stage, it truly wasn’t that bad and the performance was still visible with and without the flat screens suspended from the ceilings. I will, however, ask for box seating when requesting tickets for future events. I love the arts, so knowing this tip will keep me coming back. Thank you,

  15. On the other hand, having the seat next to someone who is oversized is not fun either. Last night I went to the theater and the person next to me took up a seat and a half. And because the seats are small anyway (as noted above by many people), I only had half a seat and was totally uncomfortable. I asked the house manager if there was any solution to this problem, and she offered us seats in the very back row (my original seats were in the front row). I felt that this was an unacceptable solution, but I don’t know what an acceptable solution would have been. I felt badly for the overweight lady, but I paid a lot of money for those seats and wanted to enjoy the show. Finally, we got a refund and left the theater. The overweight lady then had plenty of room to spread out. I hope she enjoyed the show.

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