- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 22, 2005

If pianist John Eaton had his druthers, he would settle into the balcony at the Barns at Wolf Trap, not the front row, to watch a show.

Sure, the front row practically puts the audience on the stage, but sometimes the best sound comes from notes that float up and over the lucky few in the front.

“There isn’t a bad seat in the house at the Barns. Acoustically, there are no dead spots, but I prefer the balcony,” says Mr. Eaton, whose Nov. 26 performance at the Barns marks his 19th straight season with the Vienna hall.

“The hall is small, so you’re really not that far away. You don’t feel any great distance from the performer, and the sound is a little better. … There’s a great blend in the balcony.”

The best seat in the house, much like any arts performance, is fodder for endless debates. The highest-priced tickets will always be the ones closest to the stage, an attractive enough offer that theatergoers will bend over backward — and scour EBay and other ticket brokers — for remaining tickets. Nevertheless, local performers such as Mr. Eaton caution that those seats might not be where the sounds, or the sights, are sweetest.

A choice balcony seat can be one’s best bet, particularly if the structure places it near the stage in question.

“Whenever the stage is raised, that puts a distance between the audience and the performance,” Mr. Eaton says. Ford’s Theatre in Northwest, for example, features a high stage that makes a balcony seat superb.

“I’ve performed there several times,” Mr. Eaton says. “If you sit in the balcony there, like Lincoln did, you feel like you’re right on the stage.”

Pianist Joseph Kalichstein, who performs in the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater in a trio — with Jaime Laredo on violin and Sharon Robinson on cello — agrees the balcony can offer a symphonic sense the orchestra seats can’t always match.

“Sound travels up the expensive seat in the middle of the orchestra. Very rarely are those the best seats,” says Mr. Kalichstein, who also is the artistic director of the Kennedy Center Fortas Chamber Music Series. “In great halls like Symphony Hall in Boston, even the last row in the balcony is fantastic.”

If being in front doesn’t guarantee a good seat, at least being center truly helps, he says.

“If you sit too far to the left or right, all of a sudden the sound is muddled. You can move three feet to the right, and [the sound is] different,” Mr. Kalichstein says. “At the higher level, that corrects itself.”

He advises ticket buyers to be wary of lower-level seats in older halls where the balconies hang low over them.

“Those lower seats tend to be dead [acoustically],” Mr. Kalichstein says.

Some arts productions all but punish those in the front row, such as opera productions where the English translations are displayed high above the stage.

For Eric Schaeffer, director of Arlington’s Signature Theatre, a good seat depends on the visual dynamics of a particular show.

“Sometimes, it’s better to sit farther back to appreciate the pictures on the stage,” Mr. Schaeffer says. “If it’s more simple, it doesn’t matter and closer is better.”

In the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, Mr. Schaeffer prefers the G and H sections, which put him close enough to the stage to interpret the actors without missing the sense of a scene.

“It’s back far enough but not too far back,” he says. “That’s where they seat the critics.”

If that isn’t available, he’ll shoot for the first row of the balcony or mezzanine section.

“You’re really connected to the action. The theater is all about connecting to what’s onstage. The fewer barriers, the better,” he says.

Technology is helping bridge the gaps between the best and worst seats.

Caldwell Gray, lead singer and songwriter for the Virginia-based rock group Cravin’ Dogs, contends that a competent sound mix makes the best-seat argument moot.

“The objective these days with the technology at our disposal is to give everybody in the house a good listening experience,” says Mr. Gray, who serves as lead audio technician at the Strathmore Hall arts center in Bethesda.

“These days, the technology, and the engineering, is available to give the folks in the front row as good a sound experience as the folks in the 50th row. It all boils down to how close you want to be to the artists,” says Mr. Gray, whose band will perform a 20th-anniversary show on Jan. 27 at the Barns.

When Mr. Gray buys a ticket, he considers not only the price tag, but the kind of effect he wants to have.

“The visceral experience sitting in the front row is a heck of a lot different than the balcony,” he says. Sometimes the audience wants to see the whole stage in one viewing, not pan back and forth to take it all in. That’s especially true in dance performances, he says.

“For an un-amplified performance, you want to be a little farther back to feel the whole experience,” he says.

Other times, nothing beats the front row and the “visceral experience of being sweated on,” Mr. Gray says.

Mr. Eaton says he often goes to the theater for the pleasure that being so near the artists brings.

“I like to feel the presence of the performer,” he says. “That’s really what it’s about.”


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