Hello. Welcome to 2011. Are you sitting comfortably? Marvellous. You must not be sitting in the Gods.
Today I saw what was actually a rather good production, but which was let down by the section of the theatre I was sitting in - the only one I can realistically afford when I see so many shows. Why is the Gallery (Gods, Upper Circle; whatever name a theatre gives to its highest tier of seats) such an uncomfortable place to be? At it's worst you risk vertigo for a very distant glimpse of what may or may not be an actor standing/dancing/acting on the stage far below, and at it's best you probably miss seeing most of the action with an uncluttered view due to 'safety bars' in the way. And you don't usually get a seat. You have a bench. Now, I am not the smallest person, and with a dad who is 6'5 tall I have quite long legs, but being able to pay less than a cinema ticket to see a show doesn't really make up for having to sit with my knees up to my chin, craning to see any part of the show that dares to venture any further down stage than midstage, gradually stripping off layers of extra clothing while the heat from the stage, audience and lights below rises to cloud among those stuck at the top.
But, comfort aside, having been in my fair share of 'highest tier seating', it seems to me that the majority of actors and directors forget about it. It is very rare for performers to 'play' to the audience - indeed I have seen shows where their eyes never lifted above the stalls! I know that it's impossible to please everyone, and tickets are cheaper for a reason, and it would be horrible to have to dramatically alter an artistic vision because of sight-lines. But when you stage a good 40-50% of scenes below the realistic vision of people in the top it sort of takes the piss. Theatre is about collectivity - a shared experience between performance and audience. And it seems our inherited theatres have not been designed to fully facilitate that. Of course, it's easy for me to rant about it - I don't have to do anything about it, apart from make as sure as possible that when I stage a production the majority of action can be seen EVERYWHERE in the theatre.
I think this is why I love theatres like The Courtyard in Stratford, The Tobacco Factory in Bristol, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre and the Young Vic in London. Perhaps it's notable that all these places generally use thrust staging.
Put me in the thick of it every time.