At Park Avenue Armory, the Play's the Thing, but Oy, the Seating
Audience Sits on Benches That Have No Back Support During Current Production of 'Macbeth'

Wall Street Journal, 13 June 2014
By Pia Catton

"Thanks for your pains," says Shakespeare's Macbeth, who could very well be talking about the aching backs in the audience at the Park Avenue Armory's current production of "Macbeth."

For two hours without intermission, the audience sits on benches that have no back support. The bleacher-type seating, on two sets of risers facing each other, looks down onto a runway-shaped stage below. Only guests seated at the end of a row have side panels to lean on.

The annoyance has drawn foul cries from some patrons and critics, including The Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout, who called the seating "comfortless bleachers." NY1 theater critic Roma Torre said in her rave review: "Outside you'll see a banner that reads 'Armor Thyself.' But what it really should say is 'Pad Thyself.' "

"It was very uncomfortable," said audience member Alicea Porterfield, 29 years old, who paid $60 for her ticket, while others paid as much as $350. "I was fidgeting the whole time."

The Armory's president and executive producer, Rebecca Robertson, said the benches are integral to the production's design. "It's part of the artistic vision. It looks like a tribunal," she said.

Few formal complaints have been received, she added. And patrons are informed of the seating at two stages in the ticket-buying process. "It makes clear there is bench-style seating," she said. "We want the public to know."

Although the benches are the only seating option, the discomfort can be mitigated by discrete, L-shaped lumbar-support devices that are available to guests who know to ask for them. And the seating is designed for more comfort than it was during the show's run at the Manchester International MCP.PH +3.51% Festival, where the benches didn't even have cushions

"We said, 'Nah, we need cushions,' " said Ms. Robertson, adding that the show is sold out and there is a line every morning for the $19 same-day-only tickets.

"The padding was better than I've felt in real seats," said frequent theatergoer Zelda Knapp, age 29, who said otherwise she was "pretty uncomfortable" and curled over herself a few times.

Although cushions may help, they cannot alleviate the spinal stress caused by a backless seat. "Trying to sit without back support is very fatiguing," said ergonomics expert Alan Hedge, a professor in Cornell University's Department of Design and Environmental Analysis. "You can't do that for a long time."

Mr. Hedge said people respond to unsupported seating by leaning forward to try to reduce the muscle effort of sitting up straight. But leaning forward then increases the pressure on the spine, he said. The movement between the two positions can cause injury if repeated too frequently.

"It's completely foolish," he said. "Even in churches, they put a back on the pew."

Columbia University professor James Shapiro, who specializes in Shakespeare, said he had no trouble with the seating, nor did his wife or son. He objected more to the height of the bleachers, which created too great a distance from the actors.

This "Macbeth," co-directed by Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford, emphasizes realism, using a rain machine and mud, rather than mimicking original Shakespearean staging practices, as did the recent Broadway productions of "Richard III" and "Twelfth Night."

One venue that does replicate Shakespeare's staging conditions, the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va., offers guests a choice of seating. Within its Blackfriars Playhouse, a re-creation of Shakespeare's indoor theater, some seats are three-legged stools situated close to the performers, but there are also benches with removable seat backs.

When the venue opened in 2001, guests had to pay a few dollars for the back support. "But so many people were adding them that we just decided to make that part of reserved seating," said Marketing Manager Christina Sayer Grey, adding that some guests want "more authentic experience" and go without.

The Armory, by contrast, hosts an ever-changing roster of productions within in its 55,000-square-foot former drill hall. When this "Macbeth" closes on June 22, its seating will be removed and the hall will be used differently for the next project.

For now, though, some guests may identify when Macbeth observes: "Twas a rough night."

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