Why the lobby is almost as important as the show

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(Should more LA theaters have lobbies like REDCAT? Photo credit: REDCAT)

If you go see plays every week you start to pay attention to more than what’s happening onstage.

You start to notice what’s happening (or not happening) in the audience. You learn to read the evening before it’s even really begun. This is the same thing you do at a cocktail party: you read the room.

You note who’s there. You pay attention to who isn’t there. You take the temperature of everyone’s enthusiasm. Is there an excitement and anticipation to the evening or does it feel obligatory? Does it feel like you’re being welcomed into someone’s home? Or does it have the anonymous feel of some hotel ballroom at the close of a boring conference?

Why does any of this matter? Isn’t it all about what’s onstage?

Yes . . . but no. You’d be surprised by how often the feeling in the lobby before the play telegraphs the play itself.

Think for a minute about your favorite restaurant, your go to restaurant, the one where you feel at home. Think about the attitude of the staff. Think about how maybe they know your name or you know theirs. How you look forward to seeing the other regulars. How there is a sense of comfort and community there – even if it’s miles from where you live.

How often do you feel that way in the lobby of a theater?

My guess is – not a lot.

I remember back in the heyday of the evidEnce Room, the lobby was half of the experience. Going to see who was there and hang out for a drink and a quick chat was a critical part of the evening. Even when you didn’t love the play, you loved the community.

That doesn’t happen enough in Los Angeles Theater.

There’s a lot we can blame. The lack of good “theater bars.” The price and reality of real estate and architecture, that makes lobbies small after thoughts rather than useful prologues (after all, part of what made the evidEnce Room such a great space was the lobby was practically the size of the theater). The fact that everyone likely drove to the theater and wants to dash elsewhere across our sprawl after the show. Yes, there are many challenges.

But I wonder if the real fault lies in not realizing how important the moments (and spaces) before and after our shows really are. In a city like Los Angeles where we spend so much time outside of communal spaces (cars vs. subways, etc), maybe for our theaters to work we need to provide both a prologue and epilogue that takes our audience from the individual into the communal? Maybe we need to realize that experience doesn’t begin and end on stage.