About the Heatmap

The CFRP Heatmap, an interactive data interface created by Christophe Schuwey (U. Yale), Christopher Morse (U. Luxembourg) displays ticket sales at performances during the 1680-1792 seasons.

The concept was first conceived by Christopher and Christophe during the May 2016 Pratiques théâtrales & archives numérisées Projet des Registres de la Comédie-Française (1680-1793) conference and hackathon cohosted by Harvard and MIT. Inspired by the work of conference presenters Pannill Camp, Associate Professor of Drama at Washington University at St. Louis, Juliette Cherbuliez, Associate Professor of French at the University of Minnesota, Derek Miller, Assistant Professor of English at Harvard University, and Jan Clarke, Professor at Durham University, Christophe and Christopher deliberated over possible methods of representing an interactive theatre space within a browser. They presented a first proof-of-concept at the end of the Hackathon.

Thanks to the meticulous record keeping of the Comédie-Française, it is possible to reconstruct with some certainty how much tickets were sold for at each performance between 1680-1793. In addition to cast lists, show dates, and other relevant performance information, The Comédie-Française Registers Project database contains digitized receipts of daily ticket sales. Visualisation des Billets Vendus uses this data to reveal how crowded the theatre was on a given night in the form of a heat map—the darker the color, the busier the performance. To calculate the color, the algorithm compares it to the season median value of each category. Unlike the figures on the register pages, this visualization immediately shows if a category underperformed or overperformed compared to the rest of the season.

Each design of the Comédie-Française consists of several seating areas for which there is recorded data. The Odéon, for instance, is made of the parterre assis, galerie, première loge, deuxième loge, troisième loge, and at the top of the theatre, paradis. Similar to other theatres, each seating area is divided into additional sections. Each floor of the theatre is represented as a shape and assigned its own unique color. A slider at the bottom of the page allows users to cycle through each performance date, and in the top left there is a legend that helps to distinguish how busy a particular floor was in relation to the others. With every movement of the slider, lines representing each floor will appear on the legend to show how that night’s attendance compares with the entire season.

When Le Mariage of Figaro opened on April 27, 1784, after years of rewrites and censorship, the Odéon was packed. The floor plan is dark blue, save for two categories: the troisième étage and, even more surprisingly, the parterre. Why is this? With a visual guide to each performance, it becomes far easier to identify these discrepancies and work on a different story concerning the performances. However, while the visualization offers a first impression of the crowd at the performance, its reading supposes an advanced knowledge of the specific problems of the Comédie-Française. For instance, the visualization does not consider the boxes rented in advance or the seats offered, as these data are not accessible, but only the tickets sold on the same evening.

Visualisation des Billets Vendus hopes to reinforce the meaning and the understanding of the numbers written page after page in the Comédie-Française Registers. As always with digital humanities, it raises the question of the essentialization of data. What happens when we visualize an eighteenth-century theatre like a seating chart one might see on a website like Ticketmaster? What can be learned (or not) by attempting to recreate each individual seating area, or even each seat? How might we ensure that students and researchers remain aware of the limitations of the tool and the data that inform it in order to avoid misunderstanding or overinterpretation?