Theatre Critic and Journalist

Theatre is about more than Comfy Seats

Theatre is about more than Comfy Seats

Published on the Guardian Theatre Blog, 26.06.2009

Given the extraordinary number of gripes and groans about the theatre-going experience, it’s a wonder audiences bother showing up at all.

Our creaking, ancient theatres attract such emphatic damnation for their spartan comforts that you’d think a night spent in the stalls was a hardship. What’s more, of course, you have to remortgage your house for the privilege, which leaves little spare change remaining to cover the extortionate gin and tonic. Only last week, the Times’s Benedict Nightingale berated the sweet-scoffing, text-sending, actor-abusing masses for ruining the theatre.

Adam Kenwright, managing director of theatre PR agency AKA, recently blamed the state of London’s theatres for their failure to attract audiences. According to the Stage, Kenwright dubbed our theatres “inconvenient and deeply uncomfortable”, citing a list of symptoms as long as your armrest ought to be: bad sight-lines, a lack of leg room, bar queues, toilet queues, poorly sprung seats, unwieldy booking procedures and so on. “People are not coming to the theatre as often as they would like to, or as often as they can afford to,” he claims, “because the experience is not magical.”

Now, perhaps I’ve never experienced the transformative powers of extreme cushioning, but, for me, theatre’s magic has always stemmed from the stage rather than the stalls. It is the quality of the show, not the seating, that draws audiences.

In fact, Kenwright could do worse than cast an eye towards our football stadia, which make theatres look positively salubrious and expedient. Week in, week out, hundreds of thousands of spectators perch on flimsy plastic seating with barely enough leg room to stand in celebration. They endure foul weather, overpriced burgers and a restriction on alcohol in the stands. What’s more, some travel the length and breadth of the country to follow their team.

Even those that attend only home games face huge traffic congestion or cripplingly overcrowded public transport. Why? Because football matters to them; because it’s exciting.

In the theatre, discomfort is a form of distraction and, as such, we only become aware of it when our attention has strayed from the stage; if a production fully engages and immerses us, we’ll hardly notice our surroundings. It’s only when theatre drags or droops that the cramped conditions become apparent and fidgeting begins. You don’t hear complaints from those who have squished themselves between torpedoes and navigation equipment to watch Kursk; nor from those masked creatures that sprint around after a Punchdrunk experience. At La Clique, those audience members not standing by the bar sit on the cheapest of wooden chairs, yet the only squirming in the auditorium comes as a result of the parade of physical oddities on show. Call me excessively puritan, but if a production is enjoyable, I’ll happily suffer for it.

Of course, no one’s going to complain about improved facilities, but let’s not forget that theatre as event is more important than theatre as architecture. If audiences wanted comfort and relaxation, we’d save our money and visit a spa. Theatre needs urgency more than it needs luxury. If it seeks to alleviate rather than exhilarate, we might as well nestle in the best seats in the house and doze off.

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