Should an Authentic Theater Be Uncomfortable?

I had a very uncomfortable experience the other night at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse & Sauna, attached to Shakespeare’s Globe in London. As I describe in my review of the concert I attended:

The theatre holds about 340 people, and one sits on hard wooden benches without backs (though the last row in each section — pit, lower gallery and upper gallery do have backs; the wall), and it’s quite cramped, with very little legroom. One woman left shortly after the concert began, no doubt because of the discomfort of sitting.

In addition, it is very hot inside the theater; I was sweating throughout the performance, even though there was air conditioning on. (At least it was on when we entered the theater; it may have been turned off after that.) It was so hot that one person in the audience fainted as he was trying to leave, about 45 minutes into the performance. He clearly didn’t felt well, but didn’t make it out of the theater and collapsed on the stairs next to me, only to be carried out by some of the staff and other audience members.

The point of this theater is that it’s “authentic.” (This Guardian article discusses how it was built, and why.) But this authenticity comes at a price for spectators: that of comfort.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is certainly an attractive design, but the uncomfortable seats and excessive heat make it such that I won’t be attending any events there in the future. I’d heard from someone who had seen The Duchess of Malfi there recently that it was very uncomfortable; that person was also sitting in the pit, where many of the seats are at a 45-degree angle to the stage. Clearly this design was as much so people could watch plays as talk to each other.

There’s clearly a reason why theaters have changed their seating to make them more comfortable; it shouldn’t be torture to attend a performance in a theater, because when you’re focused on how uncomfortable you are you can’t pay attention to the play or concert you’re watching. Causing audiences to suffer under the name of authenticity is simply foolish.

At a minimum, I’d expect the theater to warn people, when they book tickets, that their seat won’t have a back, and that it’s a hard wooden bench. At the Royal Shakespeare Company, in Stratford-upon-Avon, near where I live, the booking web site tells you even if there are no armrests for your seats. I’ve attended more than a dozen productions there, and I have never once had my mind occupied by my discomfort. But I have been uncomfortable in other theaters in the UK, often because of poorly designed seats or limited legroom. (And the RSC is currently running two programs of short plays in their third theater, The Courtyard, where they have set up stadium seating: benches with cushions, but no backrests. Unfortunately, they don’t specify this on their website, as I think they should.)

It’s interesting to note that in the Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, next door to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the seats are wooden benches, but you can rent cushions. So they try to be authentic, yet make a few extra quid by offering some comfort to those willing to pay.

Authenticity is interesting, but if it means that spectators are neglected, what’s the point? After all, this is a working theater, not a museum. Would it hurt too much to have comfortable seats?

10 thoughts on “Should an Authentic Theater Be Uncomfortable?

  1. The idea of this ‘authentic’ theatre actually sound interesting to me. I would be willing to suffer through the discomforts to have the a first-hand authentic experience of the old theatre. If the truth be told, most live performances are in conditions that I have to suffer through anyways. If it is the local symphonic centre, then it means sitting too far away because I cannot afford close seating… or I can get very close but inexpensive seating by sitting in the choral terrace which is extremely cramped, awkward, and uncomfortable. If it is a local jazz or rock venue, then it means that I am either going to be standing or seated at a wobbling bar table on a sticky chair in repugnant room and surrounded by intoxicated, potentially belligerent, music goers who’s primary intention it is to seek a suitable and available copulation partner hidden behind a facade of enjoying live music. Only recently have such venues banned smoking which was great except that the smoke served to mask the other disgusting smells lingering throughout the facility of booze and vomit. If this type of venue restroom has a restroom, it’s broken; if it’s not broken, it’s disgusting; if it’s not disgusting, there’s no toilet paper. Those are the indignities I suffer through as a member of an audience and even as a performer. The only few venues that are affordable and tolerable only host popular mainstream events. Music is the type of performance I most often seek out, but the same thing applies to plays or other events. Hamlet is not likely to be performed at House of Blues anyhow. 😉
    My point is just that if going to a performance already implies suffering the conditions of the performance, I find it interesting to recreate the older conditions of a performance as part of an historically authentic theatre experience. Whether or not I would enjoy the conditions in practise is beside the point if my motive for attending is to experience the authentic conditions. It isn’t necessarily foolish to set it up that way so long as they make it well known (as you said). If they did indicate the conditions, there will still be people interested in that experience; however, they would probably be foolish to attend on a hot summer day. It would also be foolish for the theatre designers to expect that well-informed people will often attend on hot summer days. It is a big problem that the conditions were not spelled out, but the conditions are not usually spelled out at the average venue either.

    • Your points are certainly valid. The theater claims that it is air conditioned; indeed it was, when we went it, but I suspect they turned the AC off when the performance began.

      If it were really authentic, I would think there’d be windows, which would open, allowing noise to enter. So it’s not 100% authentic.

      A agree with what you say about certain venues, though. There are theaters I like very much, because they are intimate; I don’t like very large theaters. I saw a concert a couple of months ago in a fairly large hall (a couple thousand seats), but the sound was excellent, in spite of its size and very high roof. I seek out venues as much as performances; I won’t go to certain venues, because they’re just not comfortable.

  2. The idea of this ‘authentic’ theatre actually sound interesting to me. I would be willing to suffer through the discomforts to have the a first-hand authentic experience of the old theatre. If the truth be told, most live performances are in conditions that I have to suffer through anyways. If it is the local symphonic centre, then it means sitting too far away because I cannot afford close seating… or I can get very close but inexpensive seating by sitting in the choral terrace which is extremely cramped, awkward, and uncomfortable. If it is a local jazz or rock venue, then it means that I am either going to be standing or seated at a wobbling bar table on a sticky chair in repugnant room and surrounded by intoxicated, potentially belligerent, music goers who’s primary intention it is to seek a suitable and available copulation partner hidden behind a facade of enjoying live music. Only recently have such venues banned smoking which was great except that the smoke served to mask the other disgusting smells lingering throughout the facility of booze and vomit. If this type of venue restroom has a restroom, it’s broken; if it’s not broken, it’s disgusting; if it’s not disgusting, there’s no toilet paper. Those are the indignities I suffer through as a member of an audience and even as a performer. The only few venues that are affordable and tolerable only host popular mainstream events. Music is the type of performance I most often seek out, but the same thing applies to plays or other events. Hamlet is not likely to be performed at House of Blues anyhow. 😉
    My point is just that if going to a performance already implies suffering the conditions of the performance, I find it interesting to recreate the older conditions of a performance as part of an historically authentic theatre experience. Whether or not I would enjoy the conditions in practise is beside the point if my motive for attending is to experience the authentic conditions. It isn’t necessarily foolish to set it up that way so long as they make it well known (as you said). If they did indicate the conditions, there will still be people interested in that experience; however, they would probably be foolish to attend on a hot summer day. It would also be foolish for the theatre designers to expect that well-informed people will often attend on hot summer days. It is a big problem that the conditions were not spelled out, but the conditions are not usually spelled out at the average venue either.

    • Your points are certainly valid. The theater claims that it is air conditioned; indeed it was, when we went it, but I suspect they turned the AC off when the performance began.

      If it were really authentic, I would think there’d be windows, which would open, allowing noise to enter. So it’s not 100% authentic.

      A agree with what you say about certain venues, though. There are theaters I like very much, because they are intimate; I don’t like very large theaters. I saw a concert a couple of months ago in a fairly large hall (a couple thousand seats), but the sound was excellent, in spite of its size and very high roof. I seek out venues as much as performances; I won’t go to certain venues, because they’re just not comfortable.

  3. Buying or renting a cushion would not detract from the authenticity…”[B]ut if he wants to sit, he is let in at a farther door, and there he gives another penny. If he desires to sit on a cushion in the most comfortable place of all, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen then he gives yet another English penny at another door.” Thus saith Thomas Platter the Younger,who in 1599 visited several London playing venues, including the Globe where he saw Julius Caesar.

  4. Buying or renting a cushion would not detract from the authenticity…”[B]ut if he wants to sit, he is let in at a farther door, and there he gives another penny. If he desires to sit on a cushion in the most comfortable place of all, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen then he gives yet another English penny at another door.” Thus saith Thomas Platter the Younger,who in 1599 visited several London playing venues, including the Globe where he saw Julius Caesar.

  5. I agree with Kirk. It’s fun to go the Globe one time and to experience the authentic setting. But it’s terribly uncomfortable, and I doubt I’ll go again either. When I went (several years ago), ushers did offer cushions for rent at £1 each. We rented them, but were still uncomfortable.

  6. I agree with Kirk. It’s fun to go the Globe one time and to experience the authentic setting. But it’s terribly uncomfortable, and I doubt I’ll go again either. When I went (several years ago), ushers did offer cushions for rent at £1 each. We rented them, but were still uncomfortable.

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