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.
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