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In a theater full of empty seats, they all look the same, right? Wrong. There are huge variations, and once you know about them, it could change the way you order tickets forever.

There are four different seat widths around the Guthrie's Wurtele Thrust Stage, for instance. Some have armrests and some don't. Some armrests swivel up; some don't. The slope of the rows — and the possibility that your view will be affected by the big-haired person in front of you — varies dramatically.

Most of those things are true of every theater in town. That doesn't mean one seat is better than another. A must-have for one theatergoer might not matter to another. Maybe you like the center of the row but your friend is an aisle woman. Maybe you're famous, so you want the best seat in the house.

But even "the best seat in the house" is open to interpretation.

Is it the most expensive? Sometimes. Prices can identify primo spots — Children's Theatre Company's "VIP" section is also its costliest: 69 dead-center seats in the third through seventh rows. At many theaters, seats right behind the first couple of rows sell fastest, which is why you need to move quickly if you want to sit in rows 3-8 at Theater Latté Da's Ritz Theater in Minneapolis.

But it's not all about price, which is why the box office staff is your new best friend. Guthrie marketing/communication director Trisha Kirk, who started out selling tickets in the theater's box office, suggests making a call and saying, "I have some special seating needs. What can you do for me?"

Most reservationists are armed with tons of intriguing info about size, comfort and even color of seats. Continue reading for those and other factors to keep in mind.

Max hiproom

Let's say you want the widest seat and you want it on the aisle. That might sound expensive, but at some theaters neither width nor aisle placement determines pricing. Seat 20 in Row N at Park Square in St. Paul gets you on the aisle, with great legroom and one of the roomiest seats in town at 23 inches, all for the venue's lowest price. Conversely, Row C is close to the stage but contains five 19-inchers, the narrowest seats in the house.

The key reason for differing widths is to avoid positioning seats directly in front of one another. Alternating the widths allows theaters to stagger sightlines while maintaining a straightish line along the aisles. Even that varies — seats at the State Theatre, for instance, are much more staggered than at the Orpheum.

Getting a leg up

All theaters have an option that gets you more legroom: aisle seats. But sometimes, there's a whole row that offers extra legroom.

At Jungle Theater, that's spacious Row D, where even Lynx center Sylvia Fowles could stretch her legs if she wanted to. At Illusion Theater, it's Row E. At the Ritz, it's also E, a row of movable chairs in front of the second bank of seats (Latté Da often puts actors in this area, so you may need to pull in your feet if a performer approaches). In the McGuire Proscenium Stage at the Guthrie, Rows AA and BB have to be removed for some sets, but, if they're available, they're very leg-forward.

Old Log Theatre prides itself on "the best leg space in town." It might have to arm-wrestle Children's Theatre for that title, but Old Log advertises 18 to 19 inches of room between rows. (Ease seems to be a priority at Old Log, which sells only 365 of its 560 seats for adult shows because there wouldn't be enough room for everyone to park in the lot.)

One place not to look for legroom? The rafters. "If you go to the Orpheum balcony, for instance, where the rise is steeper, those balcony seats — and this is going to be true of all of these remodeled movie palaces — they wanted to give the seats up above a clear view but they had to crowd them in more, so there's less legroom," said Jim Sheeley, president of the Historic Theatre Group, which manages the Orpheum and State.

Seats of the damned

Some seats are so uncomfortable that their legend lives in the hearts, minds and butts of Twin Cities theatergoers.

It has been 10 years since Theatre de la Jeune Lune closed its doors in the Minneapolis Warehouse District, but its uncushioned seats — red chairs that could be moved as the company reconfigured its space — survived to make audiences squirm for years.

"They were horrible, but they've been at every theater in town," said Dominique Serrand, formerly of Jeune Lune and now an artistic leader of the Moving Company.

Frank Theatre ended up with some of the horrible chairs, but no longer uses them. "Those chairs were so damn uncomfortable that they're kind of infamous," said artistic director Wendy Knox. "They were good for about 20 minutes and then you'd be like, 'Omigod. This hurts.' We still have 40 or 45 of them stacked in our rehearsal space."

Open Eye Figure Theatre also inherited some of Jeune Lune's seating. And also ditched it.

"Last year, I started looking around and we found [replacements] at a church that was getting new seats, so I was able to buy them very inexpensively," said executive artistic director Susan Haas.

Reuse, recycle, renew

Old seats never die; they just move to a smaller theater. Missing the ones from the old Guthrie? Then get yourself to the Ritz (or to the home of Guthrie executive Kirk, a self-confessed "seat nerd" who salvaged three for nostalgia's sake).

One batch of seats has had three lives.

"Whenever someone would come into our theater, they would say, 'Oh, I remember those seats from Park Square,' " said Zaraawar Mistry, co-owner of St. Paul's Dreamland Arts. "But the weird thing about that is: We didn't get them from Park Square."

Park Square did once own the portable chairs but passed them to experimental company 15 Head. When 15 Head folded in 2005, the seats (and some lighting equipment) settled into their current home.

In the seats of greatness

With two Pulitzer Prizes, a Tony Award and a Broadway theater named after him, August Wilson logged enough time in theaters to know where to sit in them. So, if the playwright said the best seat at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul is on the aisle in the fifth row of the center section, you'd listen, right?

The actual seat Wilson used to watch rehearsals and performances at Penumbra was replaced in 2015, along with all of the others, but artistic director Sarah Bellamy says his legendary location, E21, "remains potent."

At the Orpheum in downtown Minneapolis, you can perch in seats named for another Tony winner. While most theater seats are bolted to the floor, the "Lion King" seats — located toward the front and off to either side — are mounted on removable sleds. How did they get their name? The seats had to be removed for that show because the life-size puppets needed that space to perform "The Circle of Life."

Better red than, um, blue

If not for theater impresario Cameron Mackintosh, audiences at the Orpheum would be in very different seats.

Remodeled in time for the 1994 tour of his mammoth "Miss Saigon," the Orpheum hosted a mid-construction site visit for the persnickety Mackintosh. A sample chair, upholstered in blue, awaited his thumbs-up in the lobby.

It didn't get it. "Theater seats are not blue," he said. "Theater seats are red."

His wish was the Orpheum's command. Sheeley said they also changed the curtain, since it was designed to match the upholstery. Mackintosh was mostly right. You'll find stray blue theater seats in town — the cushy ones at Open Eye, for instance — but shades of red are much more common.

The right to bear armrests

When it comes to deciding whether you or the stranger next to you gets the armrest, you're on your own. But you can arm yourself with information that will help with that negotiation.

If you're going to CTC, the theater's seating chart actually shows which seats have movable armrests. At other theaters, ticket agents often know exactly where armrests, double armrests and movable armrests are, if that's a big factor for you.

They're certainly big for some people. When he oversaw a theater in Kitchener, Ontario, Ordway President Jamie Grant wanted to denote a row of seats as the theatrical equivalent of an airplane's first-class section. During a remodeling, he asked for additional padding on the armrests in that row; from then on, the theater charged an extra $10 apiece for those seats.

Ordway customers "found a way to get them and, if they didn't want to pay the extra 10 bucks, they didn't," Grant said.

Out of the boxes

You know those fancy boxes hanging to the right and left of the stage in some vintage theaters? They're close to the action, but they're not necessarily great seats.

At the State and Orpheum, Sheeley said, the boxes are fine for some concerts but aren't sold for many touring musicals because so much of the stage is not visible.

Two boxes at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres don't even appear on the theater's official seating chart.

"They're kind of the best kept secret of the theater," said publicist Kris Howland of the so-called director's suites. One box seats 32 and the other, built by founder Herb Bloomberg so he could drop in on performances, seats four. The latter comes with a private server and costs $500.

The boxes at the Ritz and Jungle Theater also are excellent seats. They're called "queen's boxes," although there's no word if actual royal tushes have occupied them.


Sometimes, theater seating isn't a chair at all.

Chanhassen has booths in addition to its regular seats. (Many of the latter are the originals milled in a wood shop behind the theater 50 years ago, but reupholstered, of course.)

Lakeshore Players' new home at White Bear Lake's Hanifl Performing Arts Center features unusual seating that's also a bargain: Four 34-inch love seats, which accommodate two people, go for the price of a single ticket.

Two theaters let audiences watch from car seats. It'll be your own car next year when Mixed Blood Theatre stages "Autonomy," which audiences will view while driving from scene to scene in a parking garage. And Frank Theatre repurposed old car seats for its production of "A." Said artistic director Knox, "It kind of fit with the set, which was a mishmash of old couches and car seats and scavenged stuff."

The four throne-like chairs on either side of the Jungle Theater stage are meant to accommodate folks with disabilities or other special needs.
The four throne-like chairs on either side of the Jungle Theater stage are meant to accommodate folks with disabilities or other special needs.

Marci Schmitt — Star Tribune, Star Tribune

While Frank went low, the Jungle went high with four red thrones, two on each side of the theater. Imported from France, the movable chairs are reserved for patrons who have disabilities or who need extra space for, say, an oxygen tank or service animal.

A highly opinionated guide to Twin Cities theater seats

Most legroom: The leggiest place in town is probably the main stage at Children's Theatre Company, where there's room to stretch out (or to pull legs back for kids who overdid on the apple juice and need to cut out). The steep rake of the main seating area also means you'll rarely have trouble seeing over the person in front of you.

Best place to be sure no one is in front of you: Aside from the very front row, a good option is anywhere in the first row of the balcony of the Guthrie's Wurtele Thrust Stage, which is closer to the stage than you'd think. They're excellent seats and you can be sure someone won't bouffant-block you.

Best spot for those who may need a break: The Quiet Room at CTC. Tickets aren't sold for it, but patrons with special needs (or crying kids) can chill in this soundproofed booth at the rear of the house.

Comfiest seats in town: The plushly upholstered first several rows of the Guthrie's proscenium stage. There are three different widths in the McGuire — 20, 21 and 22 inches — but you'll find more of the wider ones in the center section, closer to the front.

Best bargain: Check with the box office. Almost every place in town has some way to get a bargain, whether it's rush seats, Wednesday nights at Penumbra, pay-what-you-can shows or the $15 upper balcony at CTC. The Guthrie wants the proscenium theater to feel full, so you can find cheaper seats off to the sides. At a recent performance of "Noises Off," sitting in the center of row E cost $64. Moving just five seats over saved $30.