Originally created 04/12/98

School's theater uniquely uncomfortable



ATLANTA -- At a time when theaters are installing high-backed, plush, rocking chairs, digital sound systems and stadium seating with unobstructed views, Emory University's drama department is aiming for the opposite.

At the Black Rose Theater, the more uncomfortable, the better.

It is believed to be the only Elizabethan theater in the nation, and one of only two in the world. The other is the new Globe theater in London.

Emory's intimate, wooden playhouse takes theater back to Shakespeare's time, when it was expected that the audience would mill around during the performance, switch seats on a whim and even talk as the actors performed.

Some members of the audience peer down from Lord's boxes. Others might sit for a while in the lower galleries and yard or floor. Cushions can be rented for $1.

"At the beginning it was like watching the munchkins after the house had landed in Oz," said Vincent Murphy, Theater Emory's artistic producing director.

The idea was to experiment with audiences that are more accustomed to dark theaters, hushed crowds and minimal movement.

The Black Rose opened last fall and was supposed to be torn down after a few performances. Since then, shows have been sold out. More than 70 Shakespeare festivals and universities across the nation have asked to visit or perform there.

"I remember thinking it was so small and crowded and uncomfortable," said Krysten Bennett, a senior at Emory, who has attended nearly every production.

"At first it's intimidating, and you don't want to move. But once you get into the show, you forget all that," she said.

During The Tempest last fall, about 80 people got up off the floor and came out of the boxes to take the actor's hand during the epilogue that starts, "Draw you near."

Mr. Murphy said the answer to whether the audience would enjoy a play in an Elizabethan theater was unexpected.

"I think the prevailing feeling -- and I had it, too -- was `no,' and the shocking result was `yes,' when we did it," he said.