Posted July 11, 2005

"We cannot read or hear if we are bored and hostile and confused." – Mary Caroline Richards

I am not sure that I can actually tell you that I saw Lady Windermere’s Fan at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. I was in the same room where the show was being staged, and I could hear it clear as a bell, but there were big chunks of it that I couldn’t see. This is because I bought a $20 seat in the second balcony. In the MainStage theatre of the new $50 million '62 Center for Theatre & Dance there are many seats from which only part of the stage is visible. In fact I would venture to say that there are more bad seats in that theatre than there are good ones. And the one I was sitting in was certainly not the worst of the lot.

So let me make this perfectly clear. A $20 ticket only buys you the privilege of sitting in the theatre. It does not guarantee that you will see the show. Frankly, there shouldn’t be a second balcony in that space, it is much too high up and too close to the stage to make it a viable place to seat paying patrons. It is also quite a dangerous and scary place. If you have acrophobia, or suffer from vertigo as I do, don’t go up there! And it would have been extremely easy to fall. The balcony railing is only high enough to obstruct the view of those sitting in the front row, not to prevent someone from falling three stories to their death.

The majority of the seats in the theatre, all the traditional theatre seats, (there are some free standing chairs as well) are quite narrow and the wooden arm rests that divide them are quite wide and have sharp corners rather than rounded ones. This means that, if you are fairly broad of beam as I am, you will be in pain the entire time you are seated and will go home with nice purple bruises on either hip.

At the end of the show I went down to the orchestra level to see what the set had really looked like and discovered that it was uncomfortably cold down there - and this was on a 90 degree July afternoon. It had been quite a pleasant temperature in the second balcony, but then hot air rises. If you have shelled out the big bucks for an orchestra seat, you will want to bring a sweater and maybe your wooly slippers too.

All anyone could talk about at intermission was the dreadful design of the theatre – how they were too cold or couldn’t see or didn’t fit. One woman looked at me sadly and said, “I spent $150 to bring my whole family here.” All that money and no one was comfortable and no one could see. A substantial investment made in what was supposed to be an afternoon of family entertainment wasted because the people who designed and built that theatre clearly had NO IDEA WHAT THEY WERE DOING!!!

Notice that I haven’t said a thing about the play yet. There were a whole bunch of actors waaaaaaay down there on the stage wearing lovely costumes playing Oscar Wilde’s brilliant script on a handsome set. And I was unable to enjoy it because of poor architectural design. If I were the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the people who have to pay all those actors and designers and directors and stage managers and dramaturges and box office attendants who are working so hard to mount an attractive and entertaining show, I would be mad as hell because, no matter what they do, the majority of the audience is going to be uncomfortable and ticked off. Word is going to get out that this space is a disaster and they will lose money.

Not to mention the major egg on the face of Williams College. A great deal of time and money and energy went in to creating this ENORMOUS performing arts center. Did no one actually go and SIT in the theatre? If I were Herbert Allen and the other donors from the Class of 1962 I would be asking some serious questions of the architects, William Rawn Associates, Architects, Inc. of Boston.

The Williams College Web site contains the following information: "The MainStage, a courtyard-style proscenium theatre with 550 seats and two balconies, is large enough to attract world-class artists but retains an intimacy and connection between performers and the audience."

Excuse me, but there is NO connection between the performers and the audience when the audience is so uncomfortable and angry that they can’t focus on the stage, or worse, can’t even see it.

In his welcome message in the program Roger Rees, the new Artistic Director of the WTF concludes by saying: "...the life force of the festival is our audience. Without you our plays would merely be men and women in a large, dark space, speaking words someone else wrote for them to say. You make it theatre."

Apparently Rawn Associates and The Powers That Be at Williams College failed to take that in to consideration, and the result is really quite disastrous. I confess to being stumped as to what can be done to salvage the situation this summer since neither relocating nor canceling the WTF season is feasible, but I hope the College thinks twice about their already announced opening season. Better to cancel that, close down the MainStage and do a major remodeling before further embarrassing the College and the donors.

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