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Theater box seats are poised to become fashionable again during the COVID-19 era

Chris Jones
Chicago Tribune

Chicago – Ever watched a show from a box at the side of the stage?

Didn’t think so.

Although boxes remain a dominant part of theater architecture, they’ve gone from highly desirable to barely salable over the last hundred years.

The sightlines are lousy. The view off into one of the wings is weird. Directors and actors hate how they intrude. And unless you truly are an exhibitionist, who wants to be strutted out on display like some big-ego Parisian fop at La Comedie-Francaise?

The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier has vertical, moveable towers of seats that  mimic box seats, and could make separating groups of theater-goers easier.

Boxes are so out of style that, if you’re watching a Broadway musical in New York or Chicago, you might well find them occupied by spill-over musicians. Or actors. Or even dancers. At “Ragtime,” Harry Houdini appeared in one and did a trick.

Correction.

Boxes were so out of style.

COVID-19 has changed all that. Suddenly, boxes, or at least seats with walls or partitions around your group, are looking really, really good.

On Tuesday, the Tribune’s Gregory Pratt tweeted, the City of Chicago’s top doctor, commissioner of public Health Allison Arwady, said to the media: “COVID’s not going to be over for a couple of years, most likely.”

If that’s really the case, the current idea that theaters can go quiet for just a few months and then go back to all the old ways of doing business after some magical “safe” designation is, alas, pie in the sky.

It will be far more complicated and gradual a process. Audiences are going to want to stay away from other people, especially those audience members at the riskiest times of life. And some kind of physical barrier is far better than a taped-over row of seats.

Which brings us back to boxes. Earlier this month, the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia announced plans to design a theater that is, in essence, composed entirely of individual boxes for family or friends who presumably have been quarantining together. This “circular cage” of box seating, the theater said, was inspired by London’s Globe Theatre, the professional home of William Shakespeare.

Plague was an issue back in the 16th century, too. The most desirable seats were in the tiered boxes to the sides and the rear, not down front in the pit with the rowdy folk and the orange sellers. Why? Those seats were away from other people, and all the attendant possibility of disease and infection.

Social distancing in the arts is not as new as some people think.

That was also true in Paris in the 17th and 18th centuries, the halcyon days of private boxes.

In fact, it wasn’t until the rise of the merchant class in the late 19th century that the best-seat-in-the-house designation shifted to what is now known as the orchestra, or stalls. Theaters adapted to these newly affluent business types headed to see the new dramas of social realism, and removed the working class to the balcony, replete with a separate entrance easily exploited in following years by Jim Crow laws in parts of the United States.

Class and racial segregation en masse came to matter the most to theater owners, and the so-called seating plan started to resemble the one with which we are familiar today.

Boxes, though, stayed in architects’ minds. The main Steppenwolf Theatre, built at the end of the 20th century, is concrete minimalism, but it still has a few boxes. The Goodman Theatre, built a few years later with nods to the prairie, has them too.

In classic theaters like the Lyric Opera House, Orchestra Hall and the Cadillac Palace Theatre, of course, the word “box” (or “loge”) can be used to designate little private seating areas located in front of the stage, not to the side, with these seats often running the entire width of the auditorium, sometimes on a curve.

Those perches, which are similar in some ways to the corporate boxes found in sports stadia, are going to be increasingly desirable. In fact, it seems like a good bet that some affluent Lyric Opera patrons are going to want to switch out of their crowded orchestra spots in favor of more separation, whatever the politicians might be saying.

Fewer people will care about seeing and being seen. Theaters that have those movable seats to offer patrons will be at an advantage.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier has been mostly mum about its plans, which is surely understandable. But its new space, The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, actually fits our current protocol very nicely (Steppenwolf’s intimate theater in the round, still under construction and designed to bring everyone as close as possible, not so much).

The Yard is designed with separate towers, all of which can be spaced independently. And the seating areas on each level of the tower are small, easily reservable for one group of patrons. Plus the site of the former Skyline Stage offers a big spatial footprint, all good these days. Even the Courtyard Theater at Chicago Shakespeare works relatively well for social distancing, since it could easily be converted into boxes using the existing pillars already in the space.

You might be thinking this is all very dystopian for an art form designed for intimate human connection. You would be right. Let’s hope none of this is necessary, or proves merely temporary. But history teaches us that plagues can change everything.