Theatre designers and historians, cultural historians, and performance theorists have suggested that a theatre lobby may have a significant impact on the theatre-going experience. Despite the theories and assumptions regarding how theatre lobbies may or ought to function, no systematic investigation addressed the question from the audience’s perspective until now. What meaning does the audience give to the lobby?
Using the qualitative methodology grounded theory, analysis of directed interviews were collected for this study, and the following theory emerged: An audience member with enough time, space, and awareness encounters a person, an activity or some material goods that seizes his or her attention, resulting in a connection with the static, the public, the private or the performance. Consequently, the audience member experiences an individualized and memorable event experience. Three conditions are required for “attention:” space, time and something or someone compelling to the individual audience member. Under the right conditions, an audience member gives attention to the building, its contents, people, or activities inside. The attention leads to an interaction with some of these various elements, which leads to a memorable lobby experience.
For this study, the lobby was delimited by space and by duration. Space was physical buildings including all interior audience social areas, from the outside entrance of the theatre building to the auditorium, as well as restrooms, the box office, concession stands, and any adjoining rooms. Duration was any time spent in the audience social areas, including prior to the performance, intermission, and after-show activities. From this study, four categories of lobby experiences emerged: a private experience, a public experience, experiencing the static, and performance preparation.
In addition to the resulting theory, this study revealed that the background and training of each respondent affected his or her understanding of the lobby experience. Theatre-insiders are individuals who have knowledge of the production process. Theatre-supporters are those individuals who attend performances but have no significant background or training in theatre. Both types of audience members are important to theatre.
A lobby experience is just one part of a fluid theatre-going experience, which may begin long before the curtain rises. Perhaps it starts when they walk in the front door and encounter the lobby, where they might find services for basic audience functions, purchase tickets, store outer garments, answer nature’s call, or imbibe in a drink. The lobby, as the entrance to the building, can be rich in history or decoration, setting a tone for the evening. The lobby can be the start of a significant performance, providing an introduction to what is to be found in the inner sanctum. The lobby may also be the social center of the theatre-going experience, where audience members can visit with old friends or make new ones. The theatre lobby provides humans the opportunity to connect with others, the past, the present and even the potential. It is possible that any of these connections will lead to a significant and memorable theatre-going experience.