MARQUETTE, Mich.--Audiences at the recent Northern Michigan University production, Comedy of Errors, were the first to experience new seating in the James A. Panowski Black Box Theatre. Ergonomically designed, padded theater seats—complete with armrests—have replaced the folding chairs that once surrounded the stage. Ansley Valentine, director of theater at NMU, calls it a significant improvement.
“The folding chairs weren’t all that comfortable and some older patrons, in particular, couldn’t manage to sit for an entire performance. That stopped them from attending shows in the black box,” he said. “It was also becoming a safety issue. By fire code, chairs have to be locked together in groups. The folding chairs were worn out and damaged enough over time that they didn’t lock the way they should. That made it more urgent to replace them. Through the good graces of our dean, we were able to secure the necessary funding.”
The new seats are not permanently attached, so the space can be reconfigured as needed. They also use the space more efficiently, allowing for a slightly higher capacity. Valentine says 100 chairs were set up for Comedy of Errors.
“It’s nice because you walk in and it looks like a real theater now,” he added. “We would like to do more shows there. From an educational perspective, students who leave NMU for a professional theater career are more likely to work in places like the black box than in larger venues like Forest Roberts Theatre. It’s also cheaper for us because you don’t have the same amount of scenery to produce. Cost is important because our budget is the same as when I arrived here, but obviously the price of materials continues to increase. And if we’re in the black box, the main stage is available for other groups. Several events were held in FRT this year that we weren’t able to accommodate in the past.”
Valentine stood outside the door to the black box a couple of nights after the production to ask what patrons thought of the chairs. He said the response was positive. The chairs also earned the first mention in a published review of the play.