I’m beginning this post from Flour in Cambridge. I’m smashed into a corner of a long table. I’ve been here for about an hour and I’ve already seen a lot of life happening: a child delicately eat a croissant while his guardian perches above him, couples canoodling, awkward catch ups. I am interested in how they are brought together and coexist in this room. We’re all on top of each other and yet we’re making it work.
The design of a room is essential to the way people co-exist in it. It is for this reason, that I believe the lobby can be an essential part of theater experience (and therefore should be considered with care). My hunch is that too many theaters are not having this discussion. I am sure a big part of this is due to lack of funds and space.
A great example of a problematic lobby is at the Boston University Theatre. There is no space. I saw Sunday in the Park with George I’m glad I got there early. After the claustrophobic lobby experience: hugging the wall to the bathroom, dodging purses and canes and clutching a banister for dear life (I’m being melodramatic) I got to my seat and finally took a breath. I know there is no easy way to change the lobby in an old theater like that, but the lack of space eliminates the ability for the theater to be a place to meet. The only thing we’re doing in the space is watching the performance.
Being able to meet is the other half of a theater experience. Throughout theater history we see theater as a means of bringing people to a space. The event around the play is equally if not more important (greek theater, medieval morality plays, Kabuki, Elizabethan theaters and bear baiting pits etc).
If a contemporary theater space can also act as a gathering space, not only can the theater guarantee a more complete experience for their audience, they can also use this extended time an audience member is hanging around to create a relationship and hopefully get more revenue.
Steppenwolf has done an excellent job thinking about their spaces. Most recently they acquired a building which they have renovated to extend the lobby space, add a black box theater to allow for more plays in addition to concerts and other entertainment, and added a full bar / café with food service. I haven’t been to the Front Bar but I am looking forward to experiencing it when I am back in Chicago over the holidays.
We also know that we can be primed by the elements around us (sound, space, color) and the Lobby of a theater primes us for the experience we will have in it. For instance, studies have shown that colors can have different effects on people. Shorter wavelength colors (blue/green) produce a calming effect while longer wavelength colors like red are arousing (Color and Psychological Functioning by Andrew J. Elliot and Markus A. Maier). There are also studies that show how colors enhance or weaken performance of specific workplaces. I’d like to make a shout-out to friend, anthropologist, and kickass stage manager who sent me some articles on priming. They were generally geared towards office environments (and making choices that increase productivity) but it makes me think that we should always consider the elements of any public space. These elements can help us to prime an audience to have an enjoyable experience (whether or not they enjoyed the play).