Buffalo theaters have their own personalities, each as peculiar as the actors who perform there.
The cramped Main Street Cabaret, where the clang of Buffalo’s Metro Rail interrupts the action at regular intervals, is the stylistic opposite of the opulent 3,000-seat auditorium next door at Shea’s Performing Arts Center.
The raw, bare-bones feel of Torn Space Theater on Fillmore Avenue stands in stark contrast to the stately intimacy of the Kavinoky Theatre at D’Youville College.
Buffalo is known for its rich and diverse theater community, which boasts more than two dozen professional and semi-professional companies. It features veteran performers with Broadway credits, site-specific and virtual reality productions, a growing stable of homegrown playwrights and niche companies of every conceivable sort.
But sometimes lost in all the talk about Buffalo’s current golden age of local theater is the architecture of the theaters themselves. They range from grand buildings constructed during Buffalo’s golden age to ad-hoc spaces built on the skeletons of industrial warehouses and grain elevators.
Each stage presents its own set of benefits and challenges for performers. In the Kavinoky, cast members have to project to the balcony as well as to the house. In the Irish Classical Theatre Company’s Andrews Theatre, actors must sculpt their voices to reach audiences sitting behind them.
“I think most audience members don’t realize they’re a character in the show, whether they believe it or not,” said veteran Buffalo actor Lisa Ludwig. “When they are laughing or applauding or they’re gasping because something scary happens, they’re a part of the acting.”
The architecture of the theater shapes that essential relationship between actor and audience.
To get a sense of how each of Buffalo’s magnificent performance spaces give their own special tinge to both the performances and the viewing experience, we spoke to five Buffalo actors about the nuances, challenges and quirks of their favorite theaters:
The Kavinoky Theatre
The Kavinoky Theatre, a jewel-box of a space constructed in Edwardian Style and refurbished in the early 1980s, is by far the most stately of Buffalo performance spaces. Like an opera house in miniature, it features a handsome balcony and six politely protruding boxes where it’s easy to imagine Statler and Waldorf launching snarky asides at the actors below.
“It’s an old-fashioned theater,” said Ludwig, who has performed there more than a dozen times. “You’re above the audience and they’re a little bit farther away than some of the more intimate theaters here in Buffalo.”
Kavinoky actors, she said, must be constantly aware that their audience exists on two levels, frequently modulating their voices and gestures to make sure the show looks as good from the upper deck as it does from behind home plate.
Her advice? The best place to see a show at the Kav is from the front row of the balcony.
“When you’re onstage, you are aware that somebody up in the upper right balcony area is getting a different view than somebody who’s directly in front of you. So I think as an actor I’m more aware of how I’m acting,” she said. “There is a particular way of acting here, and usually the directors are aware of that too, to make sure you don’t forget about all the people who are up in the balcony.”
Ludwig doesn’t forget. In fact, she makes sure balcony-dwellers have the best seats in the house:
Shea’s Performing Arts Center
For actors who come through town to play on the sprawling stage of Shea's Performing Arts Center, you might think the idea of 3,000 people staring down at you would prove daunting.
But for Tom Hewitt, who has performed at Shea's three times in the last 25 years, the audience is practically invisible.
"You come onstage for sound-check, and usually the house lights are up," Hewitt said in a recent interview during the run of "Finding Neverland" in October. "You get to see what the interior of the house looks like. And that’s usually for about 45 minutes. For the rest of the time you’re there, you’ve got the follow-spots in your eyes and you have really no sense of what it is that you’re actually playing to or what the audience experience is."
Even so, Hewitt said, that first brief impression of the theater in all its glory shapes and informs the size and scope of the performances. He also said he strives to remind himself about the lives and individual desires of the people occupying those seats, even if he can't quite make them out through the glare.
"I try, in every venue, to come in through the front of the house, to come in how the audience comes in and try to get a sense of what it is they experience," he said. "Because it’s easy to forget that they’ve paid for the babysitter and they bought the parking and they paid for the dinner, and this is a thing. It’s a thing for them to come, and it’s an event. And it’s easy for us to forget when we do our jobs."
As for Shea's, he described it as a "warm, orangey, candle-lit sort of elegant experience" and said he thought to himself during his brief walk-through that he needed to raise up his performance to "match the venue."
Event during the interview at the bottom of Shea's expansive balcony, Hewitt's awe at the space was palpable.
"This is really great," he said, gazing up at the ornate and freshly painted ceiling. "I think we’ve been spoiled by this being our opening venue."
Shea's 710 Theatre
Shea's 710 Theatre
Robert Rutland is one of Buffalo's longest-tenured actors. He's performed on many regional stages and more Buffalo theaters than he can count.
But one space stands out above all the rest: Shea's 710 Theatre, the 625-seat playhouse that formerly housed Studio Arena Theatre and before that the racy Palace Burlesk. With so many seats arrayed around a unique thrust stage, a theater of 710's size might necessarily seem cavernous or impersonal.
But because of its finely tuned acoustics and the broad sweep of its seating, the theater offers an intimate experience hailed by actors and audience members alike. The result is an unusual consistency in feel for those in the back row and those in the front.
"It's just far and away the most overall comfortable place to play," said Rutland, who has performed about a dozen shows on the stage, including Studio Arena's final production of "To Kill a Mockingbird." "It is hands-down the best experience, and part of it is because of the relationship of the stage to the seating. I heard audience members say there was never a bad seat in the house."
"In relation to size and intimacy," he added, "it seems to capture both in a way that I don’t know of any other theater where you can do that. To hold 625 people and have them all feel like they’re part of the action is great."
New Phoenix Theatre
Built 1884, converted 1995-96
Stepping out of the snow and into Richard Lambert's New Phoenix Theatre, a bright green exclamation point at the west end of Johnson Park's picture-book oval of Victorian houses, is a bit like walking into your favorite Buffalo dive bar.
In fact, the headshots of actors, directors and designers that line the walls of the theater come from Ray Flynn's, the long-shuttered bar that attracted actors and journalists alike. And the kitschy objects collected from area thrift stores, combined with the rich wooden walls of the space, lend it a sense of comfort that literally sets the tone for each performance.
"Because of the way the theater is constructed, with beautiful wood everywhere ... there’s a great mellow bounce that you get," Lambert said in an interview in the lounge above the theater. "The major thing is the sense of intimacy you can get, whether it’s performing on proscenium or in the middle of the stage, or wherever, the wood gives it a great golden bounce."
The effect – both of the voice-amplifying wood and the homey feel of the decor – gives a special tinge to the performances.
"It lends itself to a great Meisner or a great method-y feeling of earnestness or honesty to the performance, perhaps when it’s not even there," Lambert said. "The idea that you can whisper and almost, literally hearing people breathe, unmiced, unaugmented, is one of the best feelings of performing at the Phoenix."
For an actor performing on the stage of the Andrews Theatre, there is nowhere to hide.
In most theaters, said Irish Classical Theatre Company Artistic Director Vincent O'Neill, "you can turn away from the audience and take a little private three seconds."
But in the Andrews? He gestured to the seating that surrounds the square stage on four sides: "There’s nowhere to turn. Basically, there’s no escape, so it’s like 360-degree intimacy and 360-degree vulnerability at the same time."
After actors get over that initial challenge, he said, they fall in love with the space.
Then, after they fall in love with the space, they find even more challenges: Because of the unique acoustics of the Andrews, actors must "sculpt" their voices – or aim them toward the ceiling – in order to reach audience members seated behind them. They have to avoid playing symmetrically, instead projecting their performances diagonally across the space so as to reach 90 percent of the audience.
"You’re totally aware of your audience. You see them cross their legs and you see them blow their nose and you see them scratch themselves, and you see them yawn and you see them fall asleep and you see them whisper to their concubines," O'Neill said. "When they make either positive or negative comments sotto voce, you hear it. So if you come on and you hear, 'Oh not him again,' it’s slightly off-putting on your first entrance."
The tradeoff, of course, is that audiences in the Andrews are never more than three seats away from the action. And actors are able to feed off the energy of the room in a way that would be impossible on the Kavinoky's proscenium or the friendly thrust of Shea's 710.
"I’ve grown to love it," O'Neill said. "At the end of the day, it’s a more honest experience in acting because it’s probably halfway to television, and because of its intimacy."