What’s In Your Lobby?

03.05.10 | 5 Comments

CATEGORIES audiences, conversation starter, ideas, marketing, storefront theatre, Uncategorized

Not long ago, I finally went to Great Lake Pizza in Chicago. In 2009, GQ magazine declared that Great Lake makes the best pizza in the United States. Articles about the particulars of the pizza and of the restaurant’s proprietor soon followed. Sharply divided reviews also followed. I loved the pizza I brought home—every ingredient converged. But the pizza is beside the point here, at 2 a.m. Here, the point is: I loved waiting for the pizza. And those moments waiting for the pizza and loving the wait got me thinking about how theaters use their lobby space.

Kitchen and all, Great Lake is the size of a studio apartment. This photo plus this photo give you a sense of the whole, tiny place. Here is what made the wait so enjoyable: along one wall is a set of shelves. On the shelves are products the owner endorses. Two magazines: Adbusters and Meatpaper. Sea salt. Stationery. Some chocolate from Brooklyn, otherwise undistributed in Chicago. Amish popcorn. A few books, a pound of coffee.

Except for the sea salt, none of these items go into a Great Lake pizza. But these items, being ones the discerning chef fully endorses, reflect the quality of the pizza. I thoroughly enjoyed browsing these items for 20 minutes while waiting for mine.

I thought of recording engineer Steve Albini, who once said, referring to a music festival, “There are three things in the world that I endorse: Abbey Road Studios; Nutter Butter Sandwich Cookies; and All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Thought of how that statement reflects his values, his tastes, and, in turn, the work he creates.

I thought of Francis Ford Coppola’s winery in Sonoma County, California. Before reaching the tasting bar, you pass tables with items for sale, all tagged with a short endorsement by Coppola. A particular brand of notebook, from France. Utensils. Books. Nothing for sale that goes into Coppola’s wine, but all items reflecting its quality and sensibility. Selling to suckers? Only if the host does not truly endorse these products, but, as with Great Lake, that’s the sole point of displaying and selling these items.

I thought about how cookies had nothing to do with the Girl Scouts, until they did.

Then I thought of storefront theater lobbies. The banners and fliers promoting the current season. The sheet of paper to sign up for the mailing list. A request box or bucket for donations. The posters of past shows. The scattered postcards for other plays currently running. Maybe a few chairs. Maybe a water cooler. Headshots of the cast. A banner or three. Low-budget, big-budget: either way, the lobby often is the closed world of a company reflecting itself, selling itself to the people who have already shown up to see a play.

Then I thought of giving a theater lobby the Great Lake treatment: a display or shelves or table with 10 items the company fully endorses. Items from the world outside the theater, each one reflecting who the company is, what its individuals are drawn to, like, care about, are a sucker for; love. Not just objects for sale, but a pinball machine, a photo booth, a turntable; whatever. No longer just another company whose lobby placard reinforces that it is devoted to “the human condition,” but a company whose specific sensibility is embodied nowhere else in the world but this tiny room—not the stage, not even the stage yet (those doors are still shut), but in the lobby.

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Eric Ziegenhagen

Eric Ziegenhagen is an arts consultant, theatre artist, and musician based in Chicago.
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  • djloehr

    This is a lovely idea, and a great way to share a company's personality and connect with an audience.

    Our own venue right now is a fully-restored former Masonic hall, which has a lot of character all by itself. We make it as much our own as we can–we're not permanent residents, so we pack out our stuff after shows close. But we try to do exactly that, share who we are as a company, show why we do what we do, choose what we choose.

    And I have a set of those French notebooks in various sizes…they're worth it…

  • It's an old theater trick: You give focus to get focus.

  • It's a life strategy really. And perhaps counter-intuitve, but you give to get.

  • amandabergwilson

    Eric, I love your sharing of these ideas. I, for one, am listening. I'm in the process of forming a new version of the my Chicago company out here, but taking the wonderful opportunity to start again to be very, very intentional. This idea is now going to be incorporated!

  • My favorite thought: “I thought about how cook­ies had noth­ing to do with the Girl Scouts, until they did.”