By Jenn Peck, General Manager
“I’m shooting myself in the foot. I’m directing a comedy and it’s not in proscenium.”
This was a comment from Ed Sobel, the Arden’s Associate Artistic Director, at a meeting about our upcoming production of Superior Donuts, the supposed follow up (although, as Ed explained to us, not really a follow up because parts of it were written before) to Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize winning August: Osage County.
I’m excited for Superior Donuts for several reasons. One is that I’m a fan of several of the production’s actors (Pete Pryor, James Ijames, Brian Anthony Wilson), a follower of Letts’ writing and an ardent believer that art should raise questions, the most interesting ones, to me, are about class and community. Another reason? For the run of Superior Donuts, the Haas will be reconfigured from its current proscenium configuration to a thrust configuration.
If you’re an Arden subscriber or if you ordered your tickets to Superior Donuts prior to 2011, you were told that you wouldn’t get your tickets to Superior Donuts until the start of the new year.
The set model for Superior Donuts
And if you’ve seen more than one show at the Arden, you’ve noticed by now that our stages may look, well, different than when you’ve seen shows in them before. You might not be able to figure out just what it is. Yes, there’s a different set for each show, different lights, different costumes, different actors, different choreography. But have you ever noticed that your seat was in a different spot?
Both stages at the Arden have flexible seating. This means that depending on the show, the director, the set designer and a few other key factors (like time and labor), each production can have a completely different seating
configuration. We’ve done Proscenium (where the audience directly faces the stage) for shows like The Piano Lesson. Or the current production of The Borrowers. We did thrust seating (the stage is thrust out into the audience, what you’ll see for Superior Donuts) for The Seafarer or (both productions of) A Year with Frog and Toad. Pacific Overtures was completely in the round but you might recall Candide as the last production in a round configuration – remember the chalk? For both Sweeney Todd and Assassins, we moved the playing area to completely different sides of the room. (For Assassins, director Terry Nolen wanted the audience to have to actually walk through the play to get to their seats, to have these characters trap you in the room to speak to you. For Sweeney Todd, he wanted to use the brick wall on the south side of our building as part of the set.) My favorite Haas configuration? Lookingglass Alice’s fashion runway set (or, depending on your interests, the football field set), placing both sides of the audience directly opposite each other.
I’ll be honest with you. My background is in theatre administration. (When I tell people I work at the Arden and they ask, are you an actress? I cringe.) And more specifically, I focus on customer service.
Mary Martello in Sweeney Todd. With a meat pie.
As the Arden’s Box Office Manager in 2005, I hated the Sweeney Todd set because people would sit down in Section C and assume their seats were terrible. (A fair assumption. They were, of course, facing a brick wall.) Once the play started and the action started and the scenery moved, ticket buyers realized that their seats were fantastic. And they had a great view of the meat pies during “God, that’s Good!”.
But my job is to make sure you have the best possible experience in coming to the Arden, from the moment you walk in the door, and if you don’t, I try to fix that. With various seating configurations, I can’t guarantee you, as a subscriber, the same seats year after year. (Chances are, the seat you are sitting in for A Moon for the Misbegotten this week is not even going to be there next fall when you return to see Clybourne Park). Sometimes I can’t even tell you where you will be seating. I can’t send tickets to the last show of the season out with the first show. And, if you absolutely love your seats, I can’t guarantee you’ll get them next time.
Since working at the Arden and watching seats change along with stories and sets, I’ve come to love a good change in seating. I watched A Moon for the Misbegotten last night on the left side of the house and I can’t wait to see it again on the right, or in the center. There’s so much to take in from the play and our production from Grace’s facial expressions to the chemistry between her and Eric’s characters that I want to be able to see it from every angle and with the way the Arcadia is set up now (a bit different from Ghost-Writer in the beginning of the season), I want to take advantage of that.
“Most spaces aren’t as flexible as the Arcadia so configuration is a unique thing to have to deal with”, says Matt Pfeiffer, director of Moon. “Both (set designer) Matt Saunders and I wanted to bring the audience even closer to the action as the whole drive behind the production was to have great actors attack the script in an intimate setting.”
What’s the best thing about flex seating? There are no bad seats in the house. No, really. There are no bad seats in the house. That’s not just something an Arden box officer tells you when trying to sell you the last pair of seats in the house. But, at the Arden, we’re serious. There really are no bad seats in the house. When the director and the set designer choose the seating configuration for each show at the Arden, they have you in mind. We don’t price our tickets by where you’re sitting because we recognize every seat is worth the same price. And I’ll be honest with you (again), it’s sometimes tricky, especially with brand new configurations. During Café Puttanesca, we couldn’t sell a seat because we felt it wasn’t good enough for our audience. (A ticket holder would have been staring at a wall. And that time, there were no meat pies and the wall never moved.) So, sometimes we decide we can’t sell a seat because when you sit in it, you can’t see the action, sometimes even after the seat is sold. (Consider this an advance apology for when we call you and tell you we have to move your ticket to a better seat. Yes, we actually do that. No, it doesn’t happen often.)
I don’t think Ed will have a problem directing a comedy that’s not in proscenium. Comedies are often in proscenium because people like to laugh together and because a lot of that laughter comes from your reaction to an actor’s facial expressions. Our production of Superior Donuts is in a thrust configuration so not all the audience members will see an actor’s facial expressions at the same time I’ll be interested to hear about what you think of what we’ve done with the show, the space and how you feel about your seat when you come see the show.
By the way, if you, like me, enjoy art that makes us ask questions, we’re opening our 2011-2012 season with Bruce Norris’s comedy, Clybourne Park. I saw it at Playwrights Horizons last year and it was the best new play I’ve seen in years. It also tackles issues about class and community and I’ve never laughed so hard. I’m thrilled that the Arden is producing Clybourne Park next season. Purchase a Leap of Faith subscription and you’re guaranteed tickets. Just don’t ask me, at least not yet, where you’re sitting. I’ll let you know as soon as I find out.