Perhaps it is time to look to the local movie multiplex for inspiration.
Perhaps it is time to look to the local movie multiplex for inspiration.

It is sometimes remarkable what the theatre-going public will put up with on any given outing: plastic lawn chairs, straight-back banquet chairs, seats with little or no padding, all with leg-room that seems to have been designed specifically for a certain diminutive member of the Games of Thrones cast.

[pullquote]Isn’t it time to take a serious look at making the performing arts experience more comfortable and inviting?[/pullquote]But no longer!  I see a revolt coming as theatre-goers and their sacroiliacs start to demand more for their entertainment dollar.  Long gone are the days when seats designed by surviving members of the Inquisition will be tolerated, and our collective aching backs may soon vote with a stay at home in our over-stuffed recliners and an evening of Netflix.

But before we lose even more of our precious audience, perhaps it is time for the performing arts to look to the local multiplex for inspiration.

Several years ago, with declining box office, movie theatres (or “cinemas” as the British prefer) began reinventing themselves by not only installing state-of-art digital projectors and sound systems, but also large comfy seats that not only accommodate our collective widening girth, but offer leg room that would be the envy of even the most upscale of airline’s first class. Taking it a step further, there are even cinemas with exclusive entrances and cafes, food service at your seat and even (gasp) alcohol that you can actually consume at your seat rather than trying to gulp down an overpriced glass of wine in an overcrowded lobby at intermission.

What if live theatre venues took a cue from these VIP cinemas, at least for a portion of the public that is willing to pay a premium? For those that could afford it, paying a few extra dollars for an exclusive ticket window, separate entrance, larger seats and even a private lobby might just be the next source of income for our city’s always struggling theatre companies.  But even if we recognize that the idea of creating two-classes of theatre-goer, of which one could argue there is already historical precedent, is neither something we value nor is it feasible, what about looking to the multiplex for other inspiration?

If you’ve had the good fortune to visit New York and its countless theatrical offerings on Broadway and off, you may have come across the New World Stages. Here you will find five theatres of varying size that run shows with staggered start times, taking advantage of a common lobby, bars and other facilities. And much like the modern-day projectionist who runs from screen to screen, it also benefits from sharing the personnel required to operate its quintet of theatres.

Imagine a world where the now empty Granville Street multiplex became our own stages for a new world; a live entertainment venue in the heart of Vancouver’s entertainment district where the larger theatre, dance and music companies operate alongside the seemingly endless number of independents that are quickly becoming the backbone of our city’s thriving arts scene.

Or if Granville Street is not the answer, is it too late to adopt this model for the new arts centre slated for the Olympic Village? Sure Bard on the Beach and the Arts Club can be the anchors, but why not use the draw from two of Vancouver’s largest theatre companies to generate interest in the other smaller and always struggling indie scene?

In either scenario, imagine a lobby filled with “coming soon” or “now playing” posters for all manner of performing arts.  Imagine that same lobby filled with theatre-goers taking a break from Neil Simon in one theatre and Neil Labute in another.  Imagine the conversations as patrons exit as they collectively discuss Guettel versus Sondheim or maybe Balanchine versus Molnar.  The energy and excitement that these diverse offerings could create collectively is mind-blowing.

Of course, that isn’t to say that all performing arts would benefit from this new vision, as you only have to look at the innovation that is going on in Vancouver’s arts community to see where part of the experience really does come from sitting on those lawn and banquet chairs. Shows like ITSAZOO’s Killer Joe that took place inside a mobile home, the Electric Theatre Company production of All the Way Home on every manner of seat on the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, or even the Aeriosa Dance Society suspended on the exterior of Vancouver’s Public Library, would simply not be the same.

But for the majority of performances that do take place inside more traditional set-ups, with their cramped rows of sloped-floor seats and their “no beverages except bottled water” in the house rules, isn’t it time to take a serious look at making the live theatre experience more comfortable and inviting?

And while you’re at it, a cup holder would be a welcome addition too.

Mark Robins on Google+