Posted August 21, 2006

Let’s talk about seating. Last week it was publicly announced that all the seats at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center would be replaced as a part of a $2.1 million renovation project. The 5,100 seats will be replaced with 4,800 new, wider, padded seats and 600 cushioned “box seats.” That would appear to be a loss of 300 seats, but SPAC’s indoor capacity will actually increase by that amount to approximately 5,400 seats.

And I can guarantee you that all 5,400 people who occupy those seats will be happier. As New York Senator Joe Bruno said at the press conference announcing the renovations, “The mind only stays engaged as long as your seat is comfortable.”

When you are comfortably seated you can pay better attention for longer periods of time. You enjoy yourself more and you come away feeling that your entertainment dollars have been well spent. You are more likely to become a repeat customer at a venue where you feel comfortable, and physical comfort leads to psychological comfort. When you are graciously accommodated, you feel welcome.

I spent a decade in the world of non-profit fundraising and I can tell you that no one opens their wallet unless and until they feel a personal connection to an institution. And no one feels a personal connection if they are physically uncomfortable in your space.

It is easy to see that comfortable seating is a win/win proposition, and the plans at SPAC prove that you don’t have to reduce the number of paying customers in order to accommodate people more comfortably.

The comfort of the seats was a major concern of mine as I drove down to the press opening of Ring Around the Moon at Barrington Stage’s new theatre on Union Street in Pittsfield, as a paying customer and as an invited reviewer I have been attending shows at BSC for most of their existence. Now that they have moved from Sheffield to Pittsfield, reducing my commute to their productions from 75 minutes to 35 minutes, I am planning to continue my patronage one way or another, and I was praying that I would get to do so in a comfortable space. I am delighted to report that the whole theatre is comfortable and welcoming with excellent sight lines and acoustics as well as comfy seats, at least on the orchestra level which is all that is open at the moment. I am looking forward to many happy years of excellent entertainment on Union Street.

In recent years both of the theatres where I review which used to have really miserably uncomfortable seating have replaced their seats. I will not get to experience the new seating in the Ghent Playhouse until early October, but the relatively new seats at Main Street Stage are great. Assuming Ghent gets it right, I will no longer have the nightmare of suffering through 2-3 hours of misery in any theatre. Believe me, it is difficult to remain objective when every muscle in your body is cramped. Theatres with comfortable seats are also more likely to more up-beat reviews from the press because we get grumpy if we are uncomfortable same as normal folks.

The Founders’ Theatre at Shakespeare & Company, which is actually an old quanset hut retrofitted as a theatre in 2000-2001, gets high marks for the comfort of its seats, something the nature of the plays they perform there dictated. If you are going to ask people to sit through four hours of King Lear or Hamlet you had better make darned sure they are comfortable for the duration.

So what on earth possessed the people who planned and built the ’62 Center at Williams College? Close to $50 million was spent on this enormous building, which contains three theatres. I have actually never set foot in the Adams Memorial Theatre or the CenterStage because the 550-seat MainStage is such an awful space that after one visit I vowed never to return. It’s that bad. Not only are the seats uncomfortable, but only a third of them actually face the stage. I would go so far as to say it is audience un-friendly. It not only made me feel unwelcome, it made me feel unwanted.

Peter Brook wrote:
"I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged."

Notice that it takes two people to create theatre. It does not take $50 million dollars, but it does take both a performer and a spectator. Remove either of those two people and theatre does not exist. Since the spectator pays the bills, theatres have traditionally been built to be more accommodating to the audience than to the performer. Actors can tell you endless horror stories of cramped, airless, mildewed dressing rooms, or, worse, having to change behind a sheet in an alleyway because there is literally no backstage space at all.

I understand that the back of the house in the ’62 Center is magnificent. And since it is an educational facility, that is as it should be. In fact someone offered that to me as an explanation as to why the MainStage was apparently constructed with no consideration for the spectator – the theatre was built for the students and it will never need a paying audience in order to function. It absolutely should have been built for the students, and I hope they get many years of good use out of it. And it is true that the student endeavors will never require the support of a paying audience, but in the summer the facility is home to the Williamstown Theatre Festival, a Tony-award winning regional theatre with 50 years of production history under its belt before the ’62 Center was constructed. The WTF is completely dependent on its paying audience and its donors. Remember what I wrote earlier about when and why people open their wallets? An uncomfortable theatre is a far bigger drawback to a company than a run down or antiquated facility. If you are putting on fabulous productions in an old chicken coop your donors will rally to build you a better house. But if your donors feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, and unwanted in your theatre, it won’t be long before they become somebody else’s donors.

And, alas, the WTF has not been mounting fabulous productions of late. Or at least that is the word on the street, remember that I won’t set foot in that horrible theatre to see for myself. But I can’t help but notice that people started thinking much less of the WTF productions as soon as they were asked to watch them from uncomfortable seats in a theatre with atrocious sight lines that is so tall it cannot be heated and cooled to anyone’s satisfaction. In fact I was talking to a founding member of and major donor to the WTF just this morning and he said that all the good shows this summer had been in the 220-seat Nikos Stage (the WTF’s name for the Adams Memorial Theatre space), a facility which I understand is much more comfortable and accommodating to the audience. Hmmmm...

Bottom line (and the pun is fully intended): Make your audience comfortable. You still need to offer them a quality product on the stage, but you won’t be able to get people in the door to see what you have to offer if you don’t make them feel welcome and wanted in your space. It takes two people to create theatre – actor and audience – and the audience still pays the bills. Invest in their comfort and you are guaranteed that half of the theatrical equation will be fulfilled.

I wonder what the seats in the Colonial will be like...??

Back to Gail Sez home.