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Shakespeare Theatre: Getting The Kinks Out

For $90 million, Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company has built the Harman Center for the Arts, a splendid new home that's winning acclaim around the world as "testimony to Washington's cultural vitality" (The Economist), "perfect Harman-y" (Live Design, a theatrical design trade zine), and "the opportunity to make Washington a destination for classical theater, where people can come for the weekend and see three worthy productions" (New York Times.)

But despite generally strong reviews for the theater since it opened in October, there have been complaints and more empty seats than the Shakespeare Theatre or the District's boosters had counted on. Now artistic director Michael Kahn has sent a letter to theater subscribers outlining changes that will be made to improve the new building.

Most embarrassingly, the Harman, named for the hi-fi magnate who donated $20 million towards its construction, is suffering from dead spots in the auditorium--hardly what you'd expect in a place named after some of the most respected high-end sound equipment on the market. "To correct this," Kahn writes, "we have added specially designed acoustical towers, which will improve the sound quality for all of the theatre's configurations."

Some seats will be widened and legroom will be added in some places, and to answer complaints that the balcony level is too steep and the handrails too high, the theater will lower the railings to improve sightlines, Kahn says.

The most common complaint I've heard in three visits to the Harman has been about the relative lack of bathrooms. Unlike the Lansburgh, the smaller theater a block away where the Shakespeare Theatre has won great success, the bathrooms at Harman Hall are hard to find and seem inadequate for a 755-seat auditorium. (The Lansburgh has 450 seats.) Kahn says the signs leading the way to two sets of restrooms that seem to be something of a secret will be improved. For now, there are paper signs pointing the way to alternative facilities.

Much of the whining about the theater has centered on the difficulty and expense of parking in Penn Quarter, but unless folks are insisting on parking in the very building in which the theater is located, this is a complaint that makes no sense. First, there's a Metro station literally across the street from the theater. Second, the neighborhood is littered with huge underground garages--more than enough to serve the Abe Pollin Arena across the street, so certainly enough for the four theaters within two blocks of the sports facility.

Last night, when I saw the bright and wise new production of Shaw's "Major Barbara" at the Harman, there was a Bon Jovi concert at the same hour across the street at the Pollin Arena. Even with police cordoning off several blocks to create a pedestrian zone for the big crowds, there wasn't the slightest parking problem. Indeed, to my astonishment, there were even street spots available within three blocks of the arena and theater. (Both the play and concert let out at about the same time, so from 11 to 12, the whole neighborhood was again flooded with people hanging out on the sidewalk and rehashing the performances, wandering from bar to bar, having a whale of a time.)

Any new theater needs some months or even longer to address structural and acoustics issues that can't really be fully understood until shows play before live audiences. Writing in "Live Design" well before the first shows at the Harman, Michael Crabb notes that "it will likely be several years before its versatility is given an exhaustive workout."

A few critics have passed judgment on the Harman, mostly finding it dazzling in looks and pretty good in sound and views. The sound is "less warm and direct than the [Kennedy Center's] Terrace Theater to my ears," writes Charles Downey of the Ionarts blog, "but still intimate." A sneering New York Times piece used the Harman Center's truly overbearing lists of benefactors that decorate nearly every surface of the building to tee off on the seemingly endless expansion of such tributes in arts facilities. But the Economist congratulates the Harman as the development that will alert the world to Washington's booming cultural life.

I'm still not entirely convinced that Washington theatergoers and tourists will support three full-time Shakespeare-based theaters (the two that Kahn runs and the Folger). Last night, as it has been every time I've visited the Harman, the room was barely two-thirds full.

But the Harman is a splendid place and an audacious statement about the District's future. I find the Lansburgh more intimate and enveloping--it's a delightful space in which to lose yourself to great ideas and performances. I love the Harman's bright and classy exterior and I'm still waiting to see the different ways in which the Shakespeare Company will use its new space. I do hope they get the sound right. The name does depend on that.

By Marc Fisher |  February 29, 2008; 8:10 AM ET
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"Much of the whining about the theater has centered on the difficulty and expense of parking in Penn Quarter, but unless folks are insisting on parking in the very building in which the theater is located, this is a complaint that makes no sense."

a-frickin-men

Posted by: Anonymous | February 29, 2008 9:44 AM

Where is the Abe Pollin Arena located? Is it anywhere near the Verizon Center? Did Abe Pollin provide pay for the naming rights and thereby help defer costs for the city and the public? Did the city council and/or residents vote to honor Pollin by naming an arena after him?

BTW, how much does Verizon spend each year advertizing in the WaPo? Are they aware they are being insulted on a regular basis for no good reason? Do WaPo employees wonder why their paper is steadily lossing ad revenue? could it be because the paper regularly insults its customers?

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | February 29, 2008 10:09 AM

We park in a garage where Shakespeare goers get a reduced rate. It's closer to the Landsburgh, but it's not a bad walk. For those of us who do not live on or near a Metro line, taking Metro is not always an option.

In terms of the women's room, not only is it well hidden, but I think there are fewer stalls than in the other theater (or that theater has a better ratio of seats to bathroom stalls). The other problem is that the doors to the stalls run almost all the way down to the floor, so it's hard to see if the stalls are occupied.

I do not understand, in this day and age, why theaters and other such public spaces continue to get it wrong when it comes to the women's bathroom

Posted by: Theater goer | February 29, 2008 10:12 AM

Too bad about the signs to the "hidden" bathrooms. I liked the fact that I knew they were there and no one else seemed to, ensuring no wait for me. Ah well, all good things must come to and end.

And as far as legroom, has anyone who has ever crammed him- or herself into a seat at the Landsburgh ever going to complain about the Harman? Sheesh. I esp. like the "airplane exit aisle" rows in the Harman (not sure of the exact rows) where you can actually stretch your legs out to full length (!)

Posted by: eraserhead | February 29, 2008 10:31 AM

The cafeteria in the front window is incredibly ugly from the street, made moreso by the seemingly dinette-quality furniture.

Posted by: mark | February 29, 2008 10:53 AM

I really can't understand Washington's parking fetish. Unless you are insisting on free and legal parking there is always a place for your car in downtown. At the very worst, you can park at Union Station which is never full. Of course, the parking fetishists probably won't ride Metro because of the so-called "crowds". These people have never been on a subway in Manhattan during rush hour. Now that's crowded! And I won't even mention Tokyo...

Posted by: Lex Pk | February 29, 2008 11:06 AM

I especially don't understand the parking issue when one assumes the complainers have been attending shows for years two whole blocks down 7th street. Wow. Such a difference.

Harman Center is beautiful and I've enjoyed all three productions Kahn has put in there so far. I was second row for the Marlowe plays, last row orchestra for Major Barbara - and found the sightlines and sound for Major Barbara as good or better than when I was row P for Cyrano or row M for Hamlet. I do miss those front boxes at the Landsburgh, though.

Posted by: MB | February 29, 2008 12:36 PM

I drove down from Northern NJ a few months ago and enjoyed Tamburlaine, Taming of the Shrew, Edward the II and the Hopper exhibit in one weekend. I brought our exchange student from France and my daughter and we all had an fabulous weekend; we enjoyed both theatres tremendously. I wouldn't have thought to mention it - but I thought the bathrooms were fine! I was very proud to be able to show off our nation's "hometown" and the theatres were definitely highlights. We plan to visit to see all the productions! (Even with Broadway 15 miles away, this is a worth-the-drive treat)

Posted by: Therese Powers | February 29, 2008 8:47 PM

I am immensely disappointed that in that whole letter, Kahn doesn't once apologize for the utter atrociousness of Edward II, Tamburlaine, and that middle school production of Argonautika.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 3, 2008 4:48 PM

I've really had it with anonymous internet critics badmouthing productions without having the guts to post their name and stand behind their opinions. I agree that Tamburlaine was quite disappointing but totally enjoyed Edward II and Argonautika.

Posted by: Michael Frederick | March 3, 2008 10:25 PM

The other bad design at the Harman, is the location of the coat check. At the old theater the coat check is at the end of the hallway between the entrance and lobby. People could line up before and after the show to one side of the hallway. Out of the way of those not checking coats and hats. At the Harman, the coat check is off to one side in an dead end corridor. People lining up to drop off or pick up coats block the stairway to the main floor and for people who just dropped off or pick up their coats.

First, I would put the coat check on the ground floor with the shop and main entrance to theater. Second, I would also locate the coat check so people could line up and not block other traffic. Third the location would be such once I have my coat I do not have cross the line of the other people waiting to pick up their coat.

How difficult is locate the coat check?

Posted by: EngineerAtHome | March 5, 2008 1:10 PM

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