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Some embrace innovative theater, but other patrons have reservations

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

WHEN THEY arrived for their first evening at Center Stage's new Head Theater, three longtime subscribers had their choice of 280 seats. They decided to sit on the left side of the stage, on the first level of a two-story, movable seating tower. Their position put them just above the action, only several feet away from the actors, and gave them an expansive view of the audience.

Before a preview performance Wednesday night of "The Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin & Louis Chauvin," the three women offered early thoughts on the innovative theater, hewn from the former auditorium and library of Loyola College and High School and on their own, elevated position.

"We love it. I think it's very exciting," said Chris Armor . . . I like sitting up high and close."

"It's very elegant," said Armor's friend, Bette Bafford. She compared her view of the stage to one afforded by a box seat.

Lorna Catling was equally enthusiastic. "It's very cozy, with all the colored [foot] lights. [It looks like] something wonderful's going to happen."

After a small disagreement, Ed and Jane Spath decided on seats eight rows back in the center seating section that faced the stage, placing them at a distance from the production. The Spaths had a much different view as well as a different point of view about the new theater's open seating policy from their three counterparts in the tower. "I felt like when I walked in it would be easier to have my own seat and find my number and sit down. I'm just a creature of habit," Ed Spath said.

"The only thing I have against it, I wasn't thrilled with the elevator ride," Jane Spath said. The couple walked the four flights to the theater.

Peter Culman, managing director of Center Stage, understands that the challenges posed by the theater's fluid seating policy are bound to affect different patrons in different ways. Some will embrace the prospect of choosing their seats; others will bristle because the security that comes with a reliable, reserved seat, often held for more than a decade, does not exist in the Head Theater. "We all like an old shoe; it feels good," Culman says.

Standing firm in his belief that habit, if pandered to, stifles good theater, Culman offers his audiences new shoes. "Stan [Center Stage's departing artistic director, Stan Wojewodski Jr.] occasionally talks about an environment that fosters the collective imagination of a group of people involved in a play. One of the enemies to that imagination flourishing, living, breathing, is habit -- when you don't give imagination a chance."

With its movable seating towers and endless staging possibilities, the Head Theater gives the "director, designer and playwright -- if they are living -- a chance to create an event of theater that's not constrained by habit," Culman says.

Culman realizes that it is now his task to open the minds of patrons whose habits were fostered in part by Center Stage's subscription policies. "We're in part hoisted on our own petard; having guaranteed seating, we trade on their proprietary sentiments."

But Culman, a Center Stage veteran of 25 years, zestfully embraces his mission. For him, it is a way of "maximizing the numbers of ways people have to enter into a relationship during a performance." Culman hesitates to call the Head Theater experimental. "It's a test; do we want to explore this critical relationship between us and an actor? How important is that? I love that some members like to sit in the front row and be spat upon, they want to see the sweat." He recognizes that others prefer their theater at a distance.

To prove his point, Culman acts like a patron and enters the fourth-floor theater. First, he enters as a child with a sense of "mystery and awe of a new place." Then he walks in, head down, takes a seat in the second row, "All right, I'm going to sit here. That's fine." Both options should be acceptable, Culman says. But, by placing a reporter in different seats throughout the house, Culman also demonstrates the distinct theatrical experience each vantage point offers.

As he prepared ushers for the theater's opening, Culman advised them to allow patrons to get their own feel for the space and to encourage them to freely explore the stage and the seating options prior to the performance. The ushers also stand ready to explain the history of the theater, dating back to its construction as a Jesuit seminary in the last century. For patrons nervous about reclaiming their seats after a trip to the lobby, there are "occupied" signs to attach to their seats.

As manager of ticket sales at Center Stage, Barbara Geeson is usually the first to hear reaction to the Head Theater's open seating policy. For the most part, subscribers "just can't wait" to try out the new space, she says. Some people, however, "are afraid of the newness of it . . . afraid of having to duke it out with other patrons [over seats] when they get there . . . Some people are very possessive about their physical seats in the Pearlstone Theater. They want to arrive two minutes before the performance and not have to worry. We have legitimately told them that every seat [in the Head Theater] is a good one."

Geeson would prefer to see reserved seating in the Head Theater. But logistically, she concedes, it would be difficult. For one thing, the number of seats available may not be determined until days before a performance.

So far, Geeson says, the seating policy has presented some thorny problems for theater staff. Patrons, though equipped with occupied signs, have been loath to leave their seats before a performance to grab a drink in the lounge or mingle in the lobby. "The doors open at 7:30 p.m.. They go in, stand in line, and then they sit down and don't get up."

It is also more difficult to cope with problems such as lost tickets. And, under the open seating policy, patrons with standing room tickets will find themselves standing, even with empty seats in the house. There is is no way of knowing, unless the theater is obviously empty, whether latecomers with tickets will eventually arrive to claim their seats.

Geeson has also encountered several patrons who do not like to take elevators. But she has not yet detected defectors among subscribers because Head Theater productions are an integral part of all but one subscription package. An upcoming renewal drive may give her evidence one way or another.

Geeson says she wants patrons to understand that the theater staff has not made decisions about the seating policy in a vacuum. "Some people got angry that they had no options," she says. "But they haven't been in the space."

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