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Not putting up with bard seats

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre auditorium. Photo: Peter Cook/RSC
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There is one aspect of the theatre-going experience which can make or break even the best production – comfort.

The fringe is accepted by audiences as an environment where, for the serious theatregoer, discomfort is treated as a rite of passage and its tickets are priced accordingly. However, in the more sedate environs of large auditoriums with higher ticket prices, audiences are less forgiving.

What if a leading theatre that previously boasted a comfortable auditorium instead elects to dispense with this in the transformation of its theatre?

For me, sadly this is my opinion of the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon.  As an avid attendee of the RSC since a teenager, I was optimistic about its transformation plans. After visiting the new theatre several times, watching plays from various seats, I am disappointed by the result.

In the RSC’s own theatre transformation vision statement it proclaimed: “The aim is to improve the relationship between the audience and the actor by bringing them closer together and creating a more intimate theatre experience. The furthest seat will be reduced from 27 to 15 metres”.

During my recent visit to see The Tempest sitting in the back row of the stalls, the audience was cramped together on bench-style seats, faced with a low overhang of the balcony creating a letterbox viewing effect adding to the unbearable heat of the auditorium and acoustic problems.

[pullquote]Where you sit and the comfort of that experience can often determine whether (or not) you want to go back[/pullquote]

Ironically, for all the boasts about being closer to the action, in reality the result was the opposite. I would have actually been better-served watching the production from cheaper seats in the balcony which is the only aspect of the new auditorium that has improved from the previous plastic seats which used to form that level of the old Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

The Royal Shakespeare auditorium during its refurbishment

The theatre’s new auditorium may have fallen into the trap of being more about a space for its directors and actors than its audiences. Of course, RSC regulars, who are in-the-know, will book for the front stalls or circle, but Stratford Upon Avon’s theatres welcome an enormous tourist audience, many visiting them for the first (and possibly only) time. I question that as a result of this, whether these one-time audience members therefore matter as much if they are not going to become RSC regulars.

If this is indeed the case, it would seem incredibly short-sighted of the RSC in looking to its future and the building of its audiences.

Where you sit and the comfort of that experience can often determine whether (or not) you want to go back. In preview and rehearsal, it is also why directors and creative teams should always watch a production from all corners of the house.

For those of us who walk into a theatre regularly to watch a show it’s easy to forget how alien this can feel to those who don’t. Theatre’s great gift is its accessibility and the unique live experience it offers but much of this is driven by the comfort and environment created in which we watch a production.

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