Right and wrong ways to set theater seating

Whenever I see a room set that fights the body, my neck and hips start to ache in sympathy. People shouldn’t have to keep themselves twisted constantly in one direction while seated at an event. Yet we make our attendees do this all the time.

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Last week I visited Boston’s Mother Church Extension of The First Church of Christ, Scientist and shot this panorama of the magnificent 3,000+ seat sanctuary. Designed more than a century ago, the theater seating here is done right. Every seat faces the key focal point in the room: the world’s eighth largest pipe organ with a total of 13,295 pipes. Short pews, interspersed with plentiful aisles, make it easy for worshipers to get to and from their seats.

Compare the above great design with these contemporary auditoria and event seatings.

Salle Henri Dutilleux auditorium 2012 8642470837_45841d105a_z
Salle Henri Dutilleux auditorium, completed 2012

Here’s a concert auditorium in Amiens, France. Pity the concert goers sitting in the side wall seats who have to turn their heads 30-45 degrees to see the stage. The folks in the seats on the left and right hand sides of the front-facing seats don’t fare much better. Notice also the long unbroken center rows of seats—not much fun to get out of during intermission.


National Exhibition Center
National Exhibition Center

This concert seating set in Birmingham, England would work well if the stall seating (red center seats) was where the action was taking place. But no, everyone’s supposed to be watching the stage at the far end! Those poor spectators in the tiered seats, sitting at right angles to the action. I don’t know if the tiered seating is removable—if it is it would be much better to set the stage on the long edge of the room and curve the seating around it.

Poetry Foundation auditorium 8707645329_b7901a3990_o

Finally, here’s the Poetry Foundation auditorium in Chicago. An attractive room, but why-oh-why are the chairs set in straight lines? Curve them around the poet for a much more intimate atmosphere.



It doesn’t take much to get theater seating right. Face each chair towards the presentation; set to the long side of the room; flare aisles off center front at 45 degrees; and cut single chair access lanes to keep unbroken rows short. Do it—it’s not rocket science and your attendees will thank you!

Photo attributions: Adrian Segar and Flickr users byb64, kaptainkobold, and jamesbondsv.

Expressing Our Feelings In Public

Of course it’s O.K. to express your feelings at weddings and funerals. But when was the last time you heard someone share their feelings in public at a conference? When was the last time you did?

I go to the theater

A play, like a straight line, is the shortest path from emotion to emotion
—George Pierce Baker

Last weekend I went to “Raising Our Voices“, a local theater gala by children, youth, and adults with disabilities. I got goose bumps and a little teary. And I finally figured out why this invariably happens when I watch kids theater.

Expressing Our Feelings In Public
You see, when I was growing up my education emphasized thinking. Learning important facts and concepts and being able to apply them to solve problems led to high marks on tests. Getting the right answers, preferably quicker than anyone else, got me to the top of the graded class roster, displayed publicly on the school notice board twice a semester.

No time to feel

However, the educational agenda allocated no time for understanding or expressing my feelings. The only kinds of grading that occurred as a consequence of my emotions were the dramatic reprisals taken when I infrequently misbehaved. All of us in school had feelings, of course, and they greatly affected how and what we did. But no one encouraged us to talk about or explore them. It was repeatedly implied that being near the bottom of the class list would be shameful, without ever giving us any insight as to what shame was!

Over the years I’ve learned to be more in touch with my emotions. And so, when I see kids in a play, encouraged to display joy, anger, fear, guilt, shame, grief and all the subtle variants of these basic human emotions, I’m taken back to my youth, and the little child in me both rejoices and aches for what I missed out on: the childhood opportunity to express and share integral aspects of who we are that were part of the human psyche long before the development of analytical thought.

A wise therapist friend of mine once told me that he believes when you feel that ache of simultaneous joy and pain, healing is going on.

A safe environment for sharing feelings

I think it’s important for conferences to offer a safe environment for attendees to share feelings that may come up during the event. Conferences That Work designs do this. Agreements explicitly safety give participants the right to speak their truth, and promise privacy for anything said.

I don’t want to give the impression that Conferences That Work are full of emoting attendees who rush to share their deepest feelings with anyone they can buttonhole. Far from it. I think I’ve seen more joy and passion at our sessions than at most other events I’ve attended. But, by and large, sharing about emotional issues doesn’t happen often.

But feelings do surface. For example, when people talk about difficulties they’re having in their workplace or their uncertainties surrounding a potential career or job change. I feel happy that our event supports and encourages them to do so. And from the feedback I’ve received, I know it’s important and empowering for the attendees who have the courage to express how they feel.

Have you felt safe to express your feelings at a conference? Do you think it’s appropriate and/or important to be able to do so? Under what circumstances? And what factors make it safer or harder for such sharing to occur?