Uncomfortable in the Audience

Performing in a building near the train tracks. Be careful of incoming freight trains.
Performing near the train tracks? Be careful of incoming freight trains.

Staging a performance in an historic train depot seemed like an exciting idea. The Southwestern style building was in the center of town, with lots of convenient parking. People from a nearby festival might even wander into the stucco building to see what was happening.

The one-woman show was about history, not trains. But I could understand why producers thought the location would be perfect.

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That is, until I got there.

After confirming our reservations, a staff member handed my companion and I paper fans. The air conditioner was broken, she said. Fans were a necessity.

We stood in the doorway, looking at the playing area and house. So many people wanted to see the play that producers tried to fit as many folding chairs into the space as possible. There was barely enough room for the actress.

We walked sideways to get to our seats. As I sat down, I realized there was no way I could stay in that spot for the entire performance. It was too cramped, too claustrophobic.

We got up and went to the doorway. Staff members encouraged us to go back to our seats, but finally let us stand by the entrance to watch the play.

One of the producers welcomed the audience and introduced the playwright. Then she warned us that at some point in the evening, action in the play would stop for several minutes so a freight train could pass.

Did I mention the building was 30 feet from an active train track?

We hear about audience members and their crinkly candy wrappers. Mobile phones ring during performances and actors will stop a show to admonish the troublemaker. Then there are chatty children and people who snore loudly during monologues.

But what about theaters that give no thought as to whether their audiences are comfortable?


Staging a play so close to train tracks might seem like a rookie mistake. It is not. Among some patrons, myself included, theater has a reputation for being physically uncomfortable. It doesn’t matter whether the building is brand new or rundown. Newer facilities tend to be cold, as if the house manager wants to show off the HVAC unit. A few years after the American Airlines Theatre in New York reopened, I watched a play and shivered through the first act. I’m happy to report the second act seemed slightly warmer.

Ignoring the needs of the audience has been going on for years now. When I was in my early 20s, I went to a theater in downtown New York and watched a brutal performance of a Shakespeare play. The brutality wasn’t onstage. My back was jammed against a wooden seat and the theater thought cutting the intermission was a good idea.

And site-specific theater? Well, that’s a whole other opportunity to make your audience uncomfortable.

I thought about these experiences as I stood in the doorway of the train depot. My feet hurt from standing, but it was better than sitting squashed in a seat. When I tried to snap my attention back to the performance, I couldn’t help but wonder when the freight train would show up.

My companion and I took a walk during intermission. By the time we got back to the theater, the performance had already restarted. We stood outside the theater for a moment, wondering if we should go back inside.

And then the freight train arrived.

Have you ever felt uncomfortable while watching a performance? Share your story in our comments section.