The Stage: Reconfiguring a theatre sometimes requires reconfiguring your budget

June 3rd, 2016 § 0 comments

Patrick Page and Damon Daunno in Hadestown (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Walking into most theatres, the experience is much the same. At one end of the space, ornate or otherwise, there is a box, which will contain the play you’re about to see. It may be open to view, it may be shielded by a curtain, but we know the box is there. Thrust stages and theatres in the round, while rarely curtained, have their defined footprint, and to a degree the audience becomes the box, surrounding the first setting of the play. Of course, environmental or immersive productions blow up these divisions entirely. But we grow used to the parameters of a given space, of our relationship to the stage, if we visit performances with any regularity.

That’s why one of the more enjoyable experiences of visiting Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop is its willingness to alter the space entirely from show to show. While plenty of productions there fall in with the prescribed model, others play with the audience/stage relationship so often that entering the small East Village theatre can be a complete surprise. Right now, there is a three-quarter oval seating space, echoing a Greek amphitheatre, for the musical Hadestown. It’s a fitting choice, since the show is a modern retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice, drawn from Anais Mitchell’s album.

For Ivo van Hove’s Scenes from a Marriage, the seating and playing spaces were trisected in Act I, with the audience moving from space to space, before a mid-show makeover removed all scenery and stripped the house to the walls, changing what was noticeably reduced into something seemingly vast.

For the US premiere of Caryl Churchill’s A Number, the theatre’s seats were placed on to steep scaffolding, putting one in mind of a vintage operating theatre.

By upending our expectations the moment we walk into a theatre, a show begins to exert its pull, and while it may be lost on newcomers, regular visitors have a special insight. Of course, NYTW is a 200-seat Off-Broadway theatre, and while its reimagined settings involved significant and singular construction, it’s not the same as if they had 1,000 seats. That said, even Broadway shows try to realign our relationship with the stages – the big boxes – from time to time.

Seating chart for Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812

The seating charts for the upcoming musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 caused a stir when they were posted online because they looked less like the map of a theatre and more like a particularly challenging version of Snakes and Ladders. Neat little rows remained in some places, but what were those yellow squares? The grey dots? The blue dots? The gentle ‘s’ making its way through the centre of the stalls? The white striped curvatures jutting out from the mezzanine? They were ramps, chairs, tables and more, all designed to add a fluidity to the Imperial Theatre that evoked the environmental intimacy of Ars Nova, where the show began, and the large tent where it played extended runs both in the Meatpacking District and just off Times Square.

Broadway has certainly played with seating occasionally in the past. Hal Prince’s 1974 Candide comes to mind, as does the mid-Act II transformation of the Winter Garden Theatre for Rocky. The short-lived Holler If Ya Hear Me created stadium seating in the Palace Theatre, building up from the stalls so that the seating flowed in the front of the mezzanine, leaving a good portion of the stalls area blocked off and empty. Fela removed seats to allow the actors to cross through the Eugene O’Neill Theatre and pass among the audience beyond the standard aisles.

As exciting as the reconfigurations can be creatively, they can be expensive – and not simply to build. If seats are removed to create a new dynamic, that’s revenue lost, and especially on Broadway, with seats selling above $150 each for musicals, you can be talking at least $1,200 in lost revenue per seat per week, provided the show is selling well. While it appears that Great Comet has added onstage seating, and may well be netting out with greater capacity, Holler If Ya Hear Me surely reduced the overall earning potential with its redesign. Obviously, this is a matter for careful budgeting, and negotiating artistic goals with the hard facts of economics.

As an audience member, I delight in the unconventional; as a theatre manager, I find myself pondering what that lack of convention cost, and whether it might make the show’s path to fiscal success more difficult. At least in subsidised settings, grants may rebalance the books (NYTW hasn’t lost a single seat for Hadestown). But as audiences come to desire ever more interaction in their live experiences, whether at the theatre or theme parks, and as virtual reality nips at the heels of a discipline that has long offered the benefit of having always been in 3D, breaking out of the box and erasing the proscenium divide seems ever more essential, even if our largest and most popular theatres may be the least suited to making that happen.


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