I often think that there should be a large sign on the office wall of every person who works in a theatre building: I CARE ABOUT YOU! Who is the “You”, you may wonder?
You, the performer; you, the playwright; you, the stagehand; you, the theatre owner; you, the designer; you, the audience member…It is a mighty list!
And who is this sign from? The theatre you’re standing in.
Suspend your disbelief for a moment, and imagine that the theatre is talking to you. Listen carefully as it shares its wisdom:
You purchase tickets that provide the cash on which our industry depends. I give you a warm welcome! You arrive by the hundreds: strangers to one another, and you’ll magically coalesce into an audience in less than thirty minutes. You migrate intuitively from street to seat. To those of you who are cranky, I understand and forgive you; you have abandoned your routines to participate in an ancient tribal rite with me – thank you! You patrons in wheelchairs (many of you my elders) I assure you that you’ll be able to experience this evening just like everybody else. I have come to believe that you, my patrons, are one of my greatest assets.
MY ACTORS: There is nothing more important to you, my dear actors, than the audience is prepared for the ritual! There are so few minutes between arrival and performance, the peaceful process of getting my audience to their seats helps them leave their hectic world behind so you, will more easily draw them into your imaginary world. My dressing rooms (forgive me) have become legendary; my costume designers love them because of the access to laundry and storage. I have stage-level bathrooms on both sides of the stage for you, because no matter what level of fame or fortune you may have achieved, you will always use them.
MY AUDIENCE CHAMBER: Intimacy is THE most frequently used word in the thousands of discussions I overhear about the quality of my house. My actors and patrons feel that they can almost touch each other. This always makes me smile, because for a moment in time and forever thereafter you are a connected community – my community – built on your shared theatre experience. The interior treatment of my audience chamber, while simple, forms the setting and backdrop upon which this community experience is built. My chamber bows to the events onstage the way you, my beloved actors, take your curtain calls.
MY STAGEHANDS: You are my closest colleagues – my comrades-in-arms. You understand that stage lighting and sound apparatus mess up my walls and ceilings, but you understand the necessity. My original designer worked closely with you to ensure that stage equipment would peacefully co-exist with architectural materials and finishes. You keep the whole interface in balance, and make it look effortless.
MY TECHNICAL INFRASTRUCTURE: If I do say so myself, my technical infrastructure is impeccable. Unfortunately my friend down the block was not so lucky; cost-saving measures during her construction left out essential front-of-house production elements. In a matter of months she was forced to endure that nasty ritual I refer to as “the law of midnight improvements”: retrofitting in unwelcome places at off-hours because too little was provided to support production in the first place; a violation: invasive, unpleasant and unnecessary. It is my job to accommodate production needs! And I am the most popular house in town because of my quick load-in capacity. (Well, my enviable seat count certainly doesn’t hurt!)
MY BACKSTAGE: Ten minutes before curtain is my favorite time of day or night. My hair people are putting the final touches on wigs in the wardrobe department; one of my stagehands leans precariously at the top of a ladder to adjust a light; my newest young dancer stretches out on the floor of the stage-left wing while my prop man – ever-so-careful not to disturb the dancer – carries a serving tray with the cup handles pointing exactly the way the leading lady likes them. Kim (my favorite flyman) climbs to the top of the stagehouse to double check the flying birds for the opening of the show while my company manager delivers paychecks to every single one of you. The seeming chaos of carpenters, electricians, hairdressers and actors, is a finely choreographed ballet. It is my job to support you all.
MY TIDBITS OF ADVICE: If I were to devise a “cheat sheet” (as my stage managers often request) of little things about me that make a difference, it would look something like this:
- Steps in Aisles: the fewer the better
- Handrails: the more the better
- Directional Signs: LOTS, to relieve patrons’ anxiety
- Comfort: not too much, not too little
- Accessibility: more and more important every day
- Row Spacing: roomy spacing offers more legroom but forces the last row farther from the stage. (Great designers required.)
- Seat Count: Fewer the better? More the better? (Each theatre owner gets to choose)
- Ladies Toilets: You can never have too many. Ever.
The most important thing to remember, and please quote me, is this:
I am a way of life. I am a place of connection and communication: a temple of art, a factory, a place of ritual and growth. I am a building in which to carry out an ancient rite of human civilization. In my embrace, you come alive. I am not an ordinary thing. I am a theatre.