Songs for the Struggling Artist

What I Wish the American Theatre Would Learn from the Brits #10

# 10 – Creating Welcoming Theatre Spaces

On my last trip to London, I revisited some theatre institutions I’d spent a lot of time in back when I lived there. I hung out at both the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) and the National Theatre. Funny thing was, I didn’t see a show at either one during this trip. I walked in and out of the front doors of both places dozens of times – sometimes to meet friends, sometimes to write in the cafe, sometimes to see what was playing. I felt welcome.
At the BAC cafe, for example, I saw new mothers with their babies.It made me think about how those babies would grow up with the theatre – how that theatre would always be part of the fabric of their lives. Not just the shows they saw but the hours they spent in its walls. I saw design meetings for shows both at the BAC and elsewhere. I saw people of all ages from all ends of the neighborhood. You can feel how these are PUBLIC institutions. Like a library. Everyone is welcome.
There is no American Institution (that I know) that has this kind of atmosphere. American Theatre Institutions are consumption experiences. You come in, you watch the show, you maybe get a quick drink at intermission and you’re out the door.
You can’t just walk into Lincoln Center and feed your baby. You need to be there to buy a ticket for a show. There are cafes in Lincoln Center but you will need to purchase something (expensive) to sit in one. At BAM, where I used to work, there is a restaurant (an expensive one) but it only opens before certain shows and closes by the time the show is over. Furthermore, if you wanted to try and walk into the building, to say, visit someone in an office, you would need to get written or verbal permission from someone upstairs who would have to either come down and get you or call the security desk to let you in and then you would need to show your id. I worked at BAM for over 10 years before I had an ID that actually got me in without having someone come escort me to the office.
Having a truly public theatre spaces means that more people are likely to feel comfortable in them and that only benefits the work – even if someone never actually buys a ticket for a show. If we find ways to make our institutions more welcoming, we increase our audiences, we diversify our audiences, we probably even sell more tickets.

Battersea Arts Centre Cafe - where you can just hang out

Battersea Arts Centre Cafe – where you can just hang out

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2 Comments so far
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Hey Emily,

I totally agree! I don’t know if you’ve seen the lobby of the new Signature Theater on 42nd St. but it might be something of what you’re talking about. The lobby is huge, set up with multiple tables and a couple couch areas, and the cafe opens at noon and stays open past intermission on show days. People come and read and meet friends. Most lovely is that theater folk — designers, directors, etc. — often hold their creative meetings there. I delighted in seeing multiple groups of creatives, each with their stage models, conversing around me. Unfortunately the theater is way on the west side, so I for one can’t go out that far to have a coffee in a theater space, but it’s there and hopefully other theaters will consider their example if/when remodeling their space. Love your blog, keep on keepin’ on!

Comment by D'Vorah

You’re right! I totally forget about it because I never get over there but it is definitely the closest thing to a UK theatre building I’ve ever seen here. Props to Signature, it def has design meetings in the cafe – for which I love it.
Classic Stage Company has a coffee shop in the lobby – which is also a good idea – but it is always packed so I don’t go there either.

Comment by erainbowd

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