Where you sit in a live-performance theater can affect the ticket price, your view and your enjoyment of the show. Each theater has its own designated levels of seating but there are general categories that most follow. Larger theater houses have more levels and ornate theaters have box seats. Smaller venues, such as off-off Broadway theaters, might be quite tiny with seats set up around a platform stage. But many theaters have seating charts you can check on the Web or in their lobbies.
The orchestra is the main level of audience seating in most theaters that feature a proscenium arch (the wall between the audience and the curtain.) Orchestra seats are categorized by sightlines and proximity to the stage. Prime orchestra seats are in the front section, close enough so that the expressions and gestures of the performers can be clearly seen. Ideally, prime seats also provide an overview of the action on stage--they are not so close to the stage that it is difficult to see the scenery or the performers working upstage. In a European house, the orchestra section might be a curve with no center aisle and two side aisles. In a typical American house, the orchestra will have a center aisle as well as two or more side aisles. Depending on the size of the section, it may be divided into prime orchestra, side orchestra and rear orchestra seats. The seats themselves are most often fixed, upholstered, fold-up chairs, attached the length of the row.
Box Seats and Parterre
Box seats ring the orchestra section, one level up. Boxes are divided by walls or curtains and the private compartments each have a few to half-a-dozen chairs arranged in rows. Sometimes, the back row of chairs is on a raised platform so that everyone in the box has an unobstructed view of the stage. Parterre seats are usually divided into center parterre (behind the orchestra), and side parterre, all along the right and left sides of the theater. Side seats may be partial-view if they are close to the stage.
Balcony or Mezzanine
The seats in the mezzanine or balcony are on the level above the parterre section and extend over it and part of the orchestra section. The front, center mezzanine seats have an excellent, unobstructed view of the entire stage, although they are not close to the stage. This level may be sharply raked so that more seats can fit in and the people in the back can see. The balcony or mezzanine level may have side seats along the left and right walls as well, and the seats closest to the stage on either side will often be partial view. In some theaters, these are two separate levels.
The gallery is the topmost area of seating in theaters. These seats are high up and far from the stage but are sold at much lower rates, so that students and others can enjoy the performance in the house. In most auditoriums, the seats themselves are identical to the balcony or orchestra seats--fixed in rows, fold-up and upholstered, although there may be less leg room. If there are side gallery seats, most or all will be partial view.
Thrust, Arena and Black Box Theaters
Seats in a theater with a thrust stage are arranged around the stage on three sides and raked so that the audience can see the action. In an arena theater with a circular stage, the seats ring the stage and the stage itself is raised for audience visibility. Black box theaters have no fixed seating and no fixed stage--they are adapted for each show.
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .