A Guide for Venue Managers & Specifiers
If you own an independent theatre or cinema or are responsible for the facilities in such an establishment, this guide has been designed to help you when it comes to sourcing, replacing or refurbishing theatre seating.
From modern seats in a new build arts centre to traditional theatre seating in a listed building, there are a range of options available to you once your auditorium requires refurbishment, or if you are fitting out a new venue.
Refurbishing Vintage Theatre Seating
There are many old theatre buildings across the UK which still have the original seating in situ. In many cases it will have been patched up, reupholstered and repaired over the years. Elements such as panelling on seat backs, which was often hidden under back boards during periods when a traditional look wasn’t deemed fashionable, are now attractive features that are being uncovered during restoration.
If you are fortunate to have the type of vintage theatre seating that’s now sought after, regardless of how it might have been modified, it’s often possible to restore it to its former glory. If you want to maintain the heritage of your establishment and show off original features, refurbishment is the first option you should consider.
The century old theatre seating at the John Peel Theatre in Wigton (above left) had undergone various modifications over the years to repair and ‘modernise’ it. Sympathetic restoration uncovered period detailing whilst reupholstery in a traditional red velvet helped transform the seating back to how it might have looked when new.
Refurbishing Modern Theatre Seating
Whilst your theatre seating may not be old enough to be classed as vintage, it can still be restored in the same way if it is starting to show signs of wear and tear. Modern theatre seating should give many years of service before it requires replacing so where only certain elements require attention, one would not usually want to go to the expensive of replacing the whole seating unit.
Over a long period of time seating upholstery can become frayed, particularly on the arms and seat edges. The foam padding inside the seats can also begin to sag, making them less comfortable to sit on. Refurbishing just the parts that are worn is a simple and cost-effective solution to prolong the life of your seating whilst making it look as good as new.
Many theatre seating manufacturers such as Evertaut are skilled in refurbishing theatre seating and can tailor their service to meet your requirements in this regard.
Theatre Seating Replacement
In contrast to vintage theatre seating which often has unique features and an attractive design, theatre seating which was new in the latter part of the 20th century often lacks character and now looks old fashioned and dated.
After the original hey-day of theatre when its popularity began to decline, many theatres closed down and buildings were either repurposed or boarded up, remaining out of use for long periods. In many cases the theatre seating was routinely ripped out and disposed of with no thought given to its historical value.
In later years when many of these buildings were reinstated as theatres or cinemas, they were fitted out with the auditorium seating of the time which is no longer suitable for modern day audiences. Similarly, theatres which were newly established during this period will also now face the same issues.
If this is the type of seating currently fitted in your venue, replacement is often the only viable option if you want to provide the kind of comfort and style that today’s audiences expect.
The original theatre seating in Formby Little Theatre (above left) was fitted in 1984 when the theatre company moved into its own premises. Whilst fit for purpose at the time, the seats were narrow and did not have any arms. Fast forward 30 plus years and the facilities in the theatre were over-due for an upgrade. They opted to replace the seats with Evertaut’s Orion theatre seating, sacrificing 5 seat places to provide more space for each member of the audience and allowing for arms to enhance comfort and delineate personal space. Removable banks of seating were also fitted on the front row to make provision for wheelchair users as and when required.
Refurbishing Theatre Seating in Listed Buildings
A theatre is listed when it is of special architectural or historic interest in a national context. Listed building consent is required for all works of demolition, alteration or extension to a listed building that affect its character. The listed status pertains to the entire property so both internal and external alterations may require consent, including any changes to fittings such as seating.
If your theatre or cinema is a listed building you can seek advice from your local authority Conservation Officer and the Theatres Trust in relation to any refurbishment works you might want to carry out. The Theatres Trust also strongly advise employing the professional services of architects, surveyors and consultants who specialise in historic theatre buildings where appropriate.
If your listed theatre still has its original seating then it’s likely that any refurbishment works will have to retain the original design and colour. That is not to say however that minor modifications are not possible if they are necessary to address issues that have could have a detrimental effect on audience sightlines or comfort.
When seating in the Grade II listed Crucible Theatre in Sheffield (below) was refurbished, new upholstery fabric had to be colour-matched to the original yellow.
Fitting Out New Theatre & Cinema Venues
For new build venues or existing buildings which require fitting out, appropriate theatre seating will need to be sourced. Most UK manufacturers will make theatre seating to order as it will be tailored to the requirements of each individual venue. There are a range of designs on the market and you will find new seating available in both modern and traditional designs to help you create the desired look.
Alternatively, if you want an authentic vintage look there is the option of sourcing reclaimed seating which has been removed from another venue. It’s likely this would need refurbishing before fitting into your venue so you would need to weigh up the cost of all these elements versus buying new. This will help determine how important it is to have original vintage seats as opposed to reproduction ones.
You may also find it possible to source auditorium seating ‘off-the-shelf’ but this is generally more suitable for the domestic market and not for professional venues. New theatre seating is a long-term, high-value investment and you need to ensure the seats you choose are going to stand the test of time with high-frequency usage.
In the case of a brand-new venue, you may be looking for someone to install a tiered floor structure in addition to the seating. A tiered floor helps provide the best lines of sight which has a big impact on audience enjoyment, even in very small venues. Many seating manufacturers can supply and fit bespoke tiering as part of a complete seating package and this is something you can discuss with potential suppliers.
If you are specifying tiering you will need to choose what type of floor covering is to be fitted over it. In an existing venue, you may also want to replace or upgrade the floor covering at the same time as the seating. Many seating manufacturers can also supply and fit this so it is something you could request a quote for alongside the seating.
If you will be using a separate contractor to undertake this work you will need to make your seating supplier aware of this so that the seating removal and replacement can be co-ordinated with the flooring supplier. Bear in mind that if your seating supplier has to make 2 site visits to remove and refit seating then this will likely incur additional costs.
The Equality Act (2010) states that disabled people should be able to access your premises in a dignified and equal manner to everyone else and to use your facilities with ease. Under the Act, service providers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that disabled people are not substantially disadvantaged when compared with non-disabled people. The Arts Council has produced a good practice guide to building access for arts and cultural organisations which can be viewed here.
In relation to specifying theatre or cinema seating, you need to ensure that provision is made for wheelchair users to easily access the auditorium and be able to sit and watch the performance. In an auditorium with fixed theatre seating, a permanent space can be made available for wheelchair users or removable seating banks can be taken out as and when required. The latter option allows venues to maximise capacity when there is no requirement for a wheelchair position during a performance.
Removable banks of seating are generally fitted on the front or back row (dependent on where access points are located). They are commonly made up of 2 or 3 seats fitted together which can quickly and easily be unscrewed from the floor for removal as required. When in situ they look just the same as all other seats in the auditorium, as can be seen in The Core Theatre in Solihull (pictured below). Removable banks of 3 seats are fitted along the front row with hand wheels (circled) to facilitate easy removal.
Whether you are replacing or refurbishing theatre seating, the requirement for social distancing is going to be a reality for some time to come. This is an additional complexity that venue managers now have a huge responsibility to deal with.
There are a variety of social distancing aids on the market from signs to stickers and of course there is also the option for establishments to create and print their own notices. None of these are without problems however as anything stuck to a seat is likely to leave behind a residue whilst signs and notices can easily be moved or accidentally knocked on the floor by patrons.
In response to the need for a more robust solution, Evertaut is now manufacturing Social Distancing Seat Covers and Seat Caps which clearly indicate seats that are out of use whilst being easy to fit and remove.
Whatever option is preferred, you will need to consider how to facilitate social distancing when replacing or refurbishing theatre seating.
Confirm Your Requirements
Before researching potential seating options and suppliers, it is advisable to compile a list of your requirements. Most suppliers will be able to give you budget prices based on the number of seats you need but to get a firm price they will need you to make certain specifications such as fabric type and seat finishes.
For established venues, it is also useful if you can supply a floor plan if you already have one drawn up, or at least confirm your seating configuration. If you want to increase or decrease the capacity of the venue, then this is something best discussed with potential suppliers as they may need to conduct a site survey and draw up a new seating plan for you.
In the case of refurbishing theatre seating, it is very helpful to provide potential suppliers with photos of your existing seats along with details of all elements you feel require attention. This should allow them to provide you with a refurbishment quote without needing to visit your premises.
Choosing a Seating Supplier
Online research should help you create a short-list of potential seating options and it’s also important to do some research on the suppliers themselves to ensure they have a good reputation and the necessary experience in line with your requirements.
If you cannot find exactly what you are looking for, you will find that many manufacturers will be able to tailor their seats to your specifications so it is often worth picking up the telephone to discuss your requirements with them.
Once you have a short-list of suitable seating options you can request quotations and in some cases it may be possible to obtain a sample seat for testing.
Although budget is obviously a key consideration, choosing seating based on the cheapest price does not necessarily offer the best value over the long term. Comparing seating specifications will also help you assess quality and comfort, particularly if you are unable to test a physical seat.
Removal & Disposal of Old Theatre Seating
If you are having seats removed and replaced you will need to consider who will be responsible for this and what will happen to the old seats. If your existing seats are no longer fit for purpose and require disposal then there will be a cost associated with this. Most suppliers will be able to handle this for you and should ensure they are responsibly disposed of with components being recycled where possible.
If the overall structure of the seats are still in good condition then it may be possible for them to be sold on or donated to a charity or other organisation – this is certainly something to consider if feasible.
Quality & Environmental Considerations
If you want to ensure you are dealing with an ethical supplier then ask for evidence of their certifications and any policies you feel it is important they have. ISO 9001 is a key quality management certification whilst ISO 14001 relates to environmental management. Some smaller suppliers may not have these certifications but it is important to check they are still following the best practice principals of them. All companies should have policies relating to quality, the environment, health and safety, equality and diversity, sustainable procurement, sustainability, and equal opportunities to name just a few.
Theatre seating is a high value investment and whilst refurbishment is generally a cheaper option it still requires a significant cash outlay. Whilst many establishments in the UK have recently been awarded funding from the Cultural Recovery Fund, there are many others who have unfairly received nothing. There are a range of other grants available from organisations such as Theatres Trust, Arts Council England, Creative Scotland, Arts Council of Wales, and Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Applying for a grant can be a lengthy process and success is not guaranteed but it is worth looking at what is available if you need to raise funds for theatre seating refurbishment or replacement.
Where grant funding has not been forthcoming, establishments often have to rely on their own fundraising initiatives to generate capital for refurbishment projects, although these have obviously been hit hard by the Coronavirus pandemic.
Another alternative means to fund theatre seating refurbishment or replacement is leasing. Many venue operators are unaware that this type of finance is available to Limited Companies for both refurbishing existing seats or purchasing new ones. It allows theatres to pay for their seating in fixed monthly instalments over a set period of time with the benefit that the payments are tax deductible against profits.
Evertaut can put clients in touch with companies who offer this type of finance although we cannot offer any financial advice or determine whether this is a suitable option for any individual establishment. It is always recommended that companies seek independent financial advice before entering into such an agreement. We do not receive any fee or other benefit for introducing venues to a finance company.
The final element you need to consider when choosing a seating supplier is the after-sales service on offer. Although theatre seating is designed to be robust and hard-wearing there is always potential for an occasional problem and you want to be confident that your supplier will be available to help if there are any issues. Ask what guarantees or warranties are offered and also what service will be available once the warranty period has ended.
From being able to repair a damaged seat to replacing a missing fixing, it is the little things that can go a long way in providing the kind of service that ensures customers are satisfied well beyond the purchase and installation process.
Lead Times & Installation
Once you have confirmed all your requirements and have finance in place, the final consideration is the timings of the project. As seats are made to order you will need to allow for lead times which generally can be anything from 4 to 12 weeks, dependent on the number of seats you require and the workload of the manufacturer at the time.
Although Coronavirus has forced venues to close, during normal times many establishments have little or no dark time available for theatre seating refurbishment or replacement work to be carried out. As an experienced theatre seating manufacturer and supplier, Evertaut works closely with venues to ensure work is carried out in a timely manner and this is something that will need to be discussed with any other potential suppliers.
Theatre seating refurbishment work will often be carried out off-site whereby all relevant seating components will be removed and taken away for refurbishment then returned and refitted at a later date. If there is no dark time available for this work to be carried out, it could potentially be done in batches over a longer period of time. This allows performances to continue with reduced capacity with refitting and removal being done between performance times.
Whilst most manufacturers will offer a supply and installation service, you may also choose to arrange your own installation. This can often be more cost-effective for smaller venues where an additional premium may need to be charged to send an installation team to fit a small number of seats.
In the theatre pictured below, the seats, backs and arms were removed for refurbishment whilst the metalwork was left in situ.
As previously discussed, theatre seating is a long-term investment, so it is important to ensure you choose the right seating that offers the optimum comfort and quality that your budget allows. With so many alternative means of entertainment available in the 2020’s, theatres and independent cinemas need to provide a great overall experience for their audiences. Comfortable seating and a clear view of a performance have a big impact on enjoyment and can be a key determining factor for audience members when deciding whether to return to a venue in the future.