To Broadwayorld.com-ers: hello from sunny Tampa, FL, home to the Devil Rays, the Falcons, Busch Gardens and the 2700 + seat Straz Center for the Performing Arts. During our sound-check yesterday, I was struck again by how big the Straz looks from the stage. It's far from the biggest house we'll play on this tour-Atlanta's Fox has almost twice as many seats-but it does have a mezzanine, lower, and upper balconies, which puts the cheap seats three stories above the stage. Think about watching a show from the top of a three-story building 100 feet away from the stage. Forget opera glasses; you'd need a high-powered telescope.
Microphone technology has come a long way since I've been touring. I'd like to claim that I remember a time before mikes, when actors' voices were enough to fill the big halls, but the fact is that mikes have been around Broadway stages in some form (foot mikes, hanging mikes) since the 50's. That means that several generations of touring actors owe their continuing vocal health to the sound techs and mixers who make sure that audiences at the Dupont in Wilmington (1223 seats) and the Peabody Opera House in Saint Louis (3100 seats) hear the same show.
From an actor's perspective, there are advantages to both large and small venues. It's fun to connect directly with an audience across a narrow pit at the Dupont or the Hippodrome in Baltimore. You can hear laughs, gasps, or the occasional hiss much more clearly, and the audience's energy is much more present from moment to moment. At the same time, there's something amazing about standing center stage singing to almost 5000 people, and nobody who wasn't born in earthquake country can imagine anything like a standing-o from a capacity crowd at the Fox.
During a put-in rehearsal in Atlanta, I snuck out during some down time, and watched pieces of Flashdance from various parts of the house. From the lip of the stage to the first row of seats at that place has got to be close to 75 feet, so by the time you get twenty-some rows back in the orchestra, you're losing faces. And at the back of the balcony, we look like a company of incredibly athletic gerbils. But if facial expressions don't make it into the back, the big dance numbers sure do. I watched my fellow cast members pour like waves across that stage. Formations coalesce, break apart and re-assemble before your eyes as if you're looking into a kaleidoscope, supported and enhanced by fluid lighting and projections, and as you're watching you remember that many of these great old halls were originally picture palaces, designed to showcase the visions of Cecil B. DeMille and Busby Berkeley. Gone with the Wind premiered at the Fox, and Clark Gable and Vivienne Leigh stayed at the Georgian Terrace across the street, where the Flashdance company stayed along with who knows how many touring actors before them. Stage and film have grown apart since the early days of the 20th century, but it's comforting to sit backstage with the ghosts at the Fox, or in the suitcase-sized dressing rooms at the Dupont, or at the Stanley in Utica, or even in newer venues like the Straz, or the Segerstrom Center, and remember that all the personnel and treasure assembled in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles comes together-at least in theory-in the service of storytelling.
Fabulous Fox Atlanta 4,678 seats
DuPont Theatre Wilmington, 1,223 seats
Peabody Opera House, St. Louis 3,100 seats
Hippodrome Baltimore 3,000 seats