How Far Is Too Far?

Posted on September 16th, by Robert Shook in Theatre Consultants, Theatre Design Article. Comments Off on How Far Is Too Far?

Renowned set designer Ming Cho Lee sketched a comparison of a small scene viewed from two different theatres.  On the left, the actors in a dramatic setting will be easy to see and their facial expressions can be discerned; on the right, the actors are dwarfed by a larger auditorium which might be more appropriate for grand opera.

Renowned set designer Ming Cho Lee sketched a comparison of a small scene viewed from two different theatres. On the left, the actors in a dramatic setting will be easy to see and their facial expressions can be discerned; on the right, the actors are dwarfed by a larger auditorium which might be more appropriate for grand opera.

A Discussion of Maximum Seating Distance

Rarely does the design of a performing arts facility progress very far before the architect looks up from the tracing paper – or the Revit display – and asks the theatre consultant the inevitable question, “What is the maximum distance from the stage to the last row?” Any architect who has done more than one theatre – and therefore has asked that question more than once – knows that there is no answer to that question; or rather that there are many answers. In fact, there are probably more answers than there are theatre consultants.

Every theatre consultant has her or his own way of answering this question. In some cases the consultant will venture forth with an actual dimension – and then usually proceed to qualify that dimension in a number of different ways. Others will take this opportunity to expound on issues such as intimacy, clarity, sight lines, acoustics, and the dramatic experience – all of which will eventually come round to a conclusion that the distance from the stage to the last row is less important than the design of everything between the stage and the last row.

There are published studies, experiments, and precedents – but not many. The noted American scene designer Jo Mielziner, in his book The Shapes of Our Theatre, related an experiment that he conducted in 1960, in preparation for consulting on the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center:

I decided to make field tests to determine the maximum acceptable distance between performers and the most distant row of the audience. How far can the last rows of seats be and still retain a sense of visual contact with the stage…to appreciate the subtle expressions of an actor’s face and eyes? I divided my tests into two general categories: drama and legitimate comedy, and musical theatre. Within each category, I picked out artists whose visual characteristics would cover a wide range. I studied Julie Harris…[and] found it impossible to appreciate her features from the back of a large house; then, moving to seats that were 50-55 feet from the stage, I found that I could fully enjoy her most subtle facial expressions. I witnessed many other performances, some in the broader style of musical comedy. The broad expressions and gestures, not to mention tremendous vocal projection of an Ethel Merman, can carry to rows over 100 feet away without too costly a loss of visual enjoyment. Here a completely different scale had to be used, primarily because of the music and movement – dance, breadth of gesture, and style of acting. The conclusion was obvious: each type of presentation style had its acceptable limits in scale. In terms of actual distance, in the legitimate field it is some 60 to 70 feet before a discernible, but decisive fall-off of visual appreciation appears. In the musical field, these distances can be extended half again as much.

The October 1984 issue of the Japanese publication, Theatre Technology, contains the article, “An Experiment in Visual Acuity Affecting Audience Seating.” This article documented a series of experiments conducted between 1964 and 1977 by Dr. Shizuo Toyama to determine the greatest acceptable distance between the spectator and stage. These experiments used Landolt Rings (essentially a thick circle with a piece missing – see diagram) of appropriate dimensions to represent the main component of a performer’s facial expression, the movement of the eyes. Dr. Toyama’s team measured the longest distance at which the orientations of these Landolt Rings could be distinguished, using test audiences. These experiments did not distinguish between performance styles, but did differentiate between the brightness of the lighting on stage. At 500 lux (50 foot-candles), the average maximum distance was 31.6 meters (104 feet), and at 1,000 lux (100 foot-candles), the average maximum distance was 34.5 meters (113 feet).

In his book Theater Design, George C. Izenour explains his general criteria of 80 feet for drama and 120 feet for Opera.

Ideally legitimate theater requires each member of the audience to be able to see the actor’s changing facial expressions, which can vary widely, depending upon lighting conditions, makeup, and distance from the stage. Opera, being more presentational than theater, requires the singer-actor to act in a more deliberate and stylized manner than the legitimate theater actor. Opera makeup is also more exaggerated and the music helps convey the emotive quality of the scene. The seeing distances for seated spectators used here are considered as average maximums. Some authorities advocate 10 percent less than those used here; still others allow 10 to 15 percent more.

As part of his preparation for the design of the National Theatre in London over four decades ago, Richard Pilbrow of Theatre Projects Consultants conducted a series of tests using actors in a number of West End theatres. The group participating in the test included Sir Laurence Olivier and members of the National Company of the time, both performing and judging the results. In the end, Sir Laurence concluded that nobody could adequately watch him perform from more than 65 feet away. This dimension drove the designs of both Olivier and Lyttelton theatres. In the Olivier, with a modified thrust and 120-degree audience fan, it was possible to place 1,600 seats on two levels and still keep the last row within 65 feet. In the Lyttelton, the proscenium configuration allowed only 960 seats to be placed on two levels in front of a 48-foot-wide stage, once again keeping the last row to within 65 feet.

There are a number of variables that must be considered in this context. Vertical sightlines – also referred to as audience slope – affects the perception; seats arrayed on a steeper slope often contribute to a feeling of intimacy more than a shallow slope. If a production is dimly lighted (or poorly lighted), a viewer in the third row may feel distanced. Performers that are not fully trained, such as in an academic theatre production, will have difficulty connecting with the audience members much less than 65 feet from the stage.

In addition, audiences have different levels of expectation depending on the venue and depending on their age. Audience members who have paid $60 for a professional resident theatre production may expect to see and hear better than audiences for school performances. And younger audiences, weaned on 60-inch video screens with surround-sound audio, may have higher expectations for seeing and hearing than their older counterparts.

Most theatre consultants agree that acceptable maximum viewing distances vary with the type of performance. Those theatre consultants who are willing to apply numbers to this exercise do so only by categorizing those numbers by performance type. Jack Hagler, ASTC, tries to limit the last row to within 80 feet “for theatres where facial expressions are important.” Hagler, who has consulted on several theme park theatres, finds that acceptable maximum distances in those venues are typically higher – often in excess of 125 feet.

Jim Read, ASTC, points out the importance of distinguishing the actor’s features and doesn’t like working beyond 75 feet for theatre and 100 feet for musicals and opera. Edgar L. Lustig, FASTC, uses a sliding scale that accepts 60 feet for small academic theatres, 80 feet for theatres seating up to 1,400, and 115 feet for theatres as large as 3,000.

Acoustics are obviously a factor. R. Duane Wilson, ASTC, who generally relies on the Izenour criteria of 80 feet for drama and 120 feet for musicals and opera, applies these criteria from an acoustical standpoint. Wilson says, “For me the real criteria is not distance per se, but the resulting volume and its effect on reverberation. A multi-thousand seat modern church will be acceptable at 150 feet only because all events will have speech reinforcement and video augmentation. The room will be treated to be totally absorptive with no reverberant field”

Where hearing is of primary importance to one theatre consultant, other olfactory senses are important to others. The credo of the late Armand Marion, ASTC was, “If you can’t smell the actors, then you are too far away!”

Robert Long, ASTC, who generally uses 65 feet for drama and 120 feet for opera and musicals, quickly goes on to explain, “Each live performing art tends to dictate the scale upon which it can be successfully performed. Eventually satisfaction for each audience will depend upon both the radiated power of the human performer and the degree of arousal and response engendered as individual spectators are transformed into a collective audience. Issues of sufficient three-dimensional “crowding,” increased sense of mutual awareness, and psychological reaction dictated by the environment surrounding the performance, all play a part in creating great live performance space.”

It could be argued that the newest scenographic technologies are allowing for longer viewing distances. Many modern productions feature prominent surfaces for video display, which are generally large enough – and bright enough – to discern from beyond 100 feet. Whether such technologies can ever compensate for lack of perception of an actor’s facial expression is certainly debatable. Actors are not getting any larger, only the scenery is.

For these reasons, and others, Robert Davis, FASTC, refuses to identify specific maximum distances. He says, “Good theatres are created by reiterating the planning over and over [during the design process], not by following generic rules. The acceptable distance depends heavily on the production style and experience level of the actors and director. There are no golden numbers. How do we make the audience feel connected to the performance? In designing a room, every action we take is made with audience focus in mind. Every line, every surface, every material, and every ray of light in the auditorium should be helping the whole audience connect to the performance.”

By Robert Shook, ASTC

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