Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Best Seat in the House

The Beggar's Opera

Rough theatres rejoice! There is no reason to be embarrassed about non permanent seating! Join me in celebrating the growing trend of incorporating the audience into set designs: a practice that gives even the dingiest performance spaces an advantage over the most ornate prosceniums on Broadway.

When a production team mounts a project in a nontraditional space and the members have to decide on a seating layout that will work best for their show, it forces them to think about what part they want the audience to play in the production. Contemporary theorists have asserted that the audience is just as responsible for the quality of a show as the creative team. When we have the freedom to manipulate how an audience member is situated, it allows us to make a subtle, perhaps even unconscious suggestion to the spectator about how they should be viewing the play. Both the original and the revival of Shaffer’s Equus elevated the audience around the playing space, simultaneously giving the audience members an air of omnipotence and entrapping the players in the world onstage. The Broadway production of Inherit the Wind put some audience members into an actual jury box to judge the epic Scopes monkey trial for themselves.

This is especially important to those of us who are interested in progressive theatre, for the activists using the medium to make claims about today's society to inspire thought and change. It’s exciting to know that we can give viewers a little push in the right direction simply by the way we seat them. Incorporating the audience into the design is an ever present friendly reminder that the audience is not a constant; it is living and breathing, just like the production.

Extra onstage seating was common in 18th century England. Before actor-manager David Garrick banned audience members from squeezing around the stage in 1763, he scoffed about having to look at ghastly, dimly lit faces as a backdrop to the otherwise intimate crypt scene in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Although Garrick was disgusted with the thought, I can't help but imagine this as a breathtaking tableau, even when I de-romanticize it to include the sleeping guy in the second row, and the woman leafing through her playbill on the top. When we are seated across from other audience members, it literalizes the idea that theatre is a reflection of life, whether rippled or stagnant, because the spectators – ourselves - are well within the sightlines. When the style of seating is harmonious with the rest of a production, it follows logically that the audience is more likely to be alert and appropriately responsive. All of these qualities boil down to a standard Peter Brook definition of a responsible spectator.

These are some of the reasons I am incredibly proud that Brooklyn College is embracing this untraditional practice. After our spring production of Moliere's The Learned Ladies, we will be renovating our coveted proscenium space so that the seating is flexible. Instead of molding a show into a pre-determined space, there will be more freedom to mold the space itself. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more theatres follow suit in the future.

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