This Intermission Isn’t Big Enough For Bar And Bathroom Lines

Last month I made a post about the evolution of women’s restroom lounges resulting in a short, but interesting exchange about theater restroom facilities in Germany and Sweden.   Last week The Stage had the results of a survey of West End theater restrooms which further reinforced the fact that historical theaters have a tough time providing facilities to meet the usage habits of modern day audiences. (my emphasis)

At the 42 theatres counted, there is one toilet for every 26 people, with this number increasing to one toilet for every 38 female audience members – an indication of the under-provision of facilities for women.

At capacity, the average theatre would need a 57-minute interval – nearly three times the standard length of 20 minutes – to allow all women to go to the toilet, presuming each woman takes 90 seconds.

Note this is averaged across the 42 theatres. According to the article, “the Old Vic has just one toilet for every 56.7 women.”

They arrived at the gender specific ratios based on the finding in a 2010 survey that females comprise 68% of audiences and then applying that to the full attendance capacity of a venue.

I have no idea how they arrived at the 90 second standard for using the toilet.

Perhaps part of the problem isn’t insufficient number of toilets, it is that women aren’t as competitive as men when it comes to urinating. Put time clocks on stalls and offer discounts at the bar for finishing under 60 seconds, problem solved.

If you are planning an excursion to see shows in London, you might be better off at the National Theatre which has the best ratio of 13.3/person (180 toilets, by the way). The Royal Court and Royal Opera House hover just slightly behind that ratio.

Accessible and gender neutral facilities have worse numbers:

Another area in which theatres routinely under-perform is accessibility: 26 (62%) of the 42 theatres counted had just one disabled toilet, with two – the Ambassadors and Wyndham’s – offering no accessible toilets at all.

While most theatres cater for men and women separately, a handful, including the Royal Court, the NT and the ROH, offer gender-neutral facilities. The Royal Court is currently unique in that all of its toilet cubicles are gender neutral, meaning they are available to people of any gender.

I found that last sentence interesting because when I wrote last month about the evolution of restroom lounges, I noted that the very first public restrooms in the US were gender neutral because they were individual cubicles rather than the more communal arrangements we have today. The best approach for restrooms may be to go retro.  (I am not sure what the set up is at the Royal Court, but given that European restroom stalls tend to be enclosed floor to ceiling it is possible to offer individual gender neutral private cubicles without needing much more additional space.)

As The Toilet Flushes

Having been part of two theater renovations which had enlarging restrooms as a major focus of construction I read CityLab’s article on the history of women’s restroom lounges with some interest.

It may not seem like an engaging subject, but since expectations about amenities like restrooms have a significant influence in whether people enjoy their experience, it is something to which it is worth paying attention.

Theaters were among the first buildings to include lounges as you might imagine, but I was surprised to learn that the lounges pre-dated indoor plumbing.  There was a sense that the genders should have places to retire to separately even before other physical necessities were addressed.

“Interestingly, ornate lounges for women preceded public restrooms by several decades,” Kogan explained, noting that there were parlors for women in public buildings many years prior to when most of America had indoor plumbing. In other words, gender separation and protecting women’s virtue was initially the justification for these spaces, and the toilet came later.

When public restrooms were first introduced, they weren’t segregated by gender because they were all single use rooms. It wasn’t until construction techniques enabled greater amount of indoor plumbing that these single use rooms were attached to gender segregated lounges. Of course as technology allowed for communal restrooms, those became even more firmly associated with separate lounges.

Over time, the lounges began to be omitted from new construction, and with few exceptions, those building with lounges saw the spaces repurposed for other uses.

The thing I am curious about is how restroom sizes shrunk to the point where we are now expanding them to accommodate need. Was there a time when architects decided people didn’t need as much restroom space as they do?

Alternatively, have people become more comfortable using public restroom spaces placing more demand than was the norm when the spaces were originally constructed?

Another explanation, at least for performing arts spaces, might be that the expectation that you be back in your seat promptly at the end of intermission has directed more people to restrooms in a shorter period of time than when the building was first constructed.

I would be interested to hear what theories people have.

Philadelphia Museums Seem To Be Gathering A Trove Of Interesting Voices

There seems to be a trend among museums in the Philadelphia area which sees value in the perspectives of non-traditional guides and voices. I have written about the Jawnty tours provided at the Barnes Foundation and University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology using Iraqi and Syrian refugees as guides to the Middle East galleries.

Today on Hyperallergic there was a story about how people have been looking to a security guard at University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art for her perspective.

The guard, Linda Harris, has been working at the museum since 2002. When she first started working there, she was apprehensive about whether she belonged there. Now she serves as a friendly face that facilitates discussions about a style of art some people can have difficulty relating to.

[Artist Alex Da Corte,] … notes that Harris’s dual roles, as an authority figure and as a non-traditional educator, allow her to help the museum stay true to its “Free for All” mission statement. Beyond free admission, the museum seeks to be a space where anyone from any community can come and have an experience with contemporary art. Harris represents the position that you don’t need to know everything about a work of art to comment on what it’s doing or how it makes you feel.

The article says Harris also embodies the role of educator and authority figure by providing permission and encouragement to visitors who encounter the interactive exhibitions. This has been especially valuable in cases where the permission to touch wasn’t explicit and required active encouragement.

However, people haven’t always welcomed the insights of a security guard. Over the years, it appears there may have been a shift in visitor expectations about the experience as well as Harris’ ability to discuss works with them.

Robert Chaney…remembers early visitors complaining: “We wanted it to be a quiet visit and a security officer kept talking to us.” Now, he says, people come in specifically “to talk to Linda, and to see what she has to say within the context of an exhibition.”

Chaney recognizes the value of Harris’s presence: “A contemporary art space can be intimidating for people. It’s often not work that’s easily defined or easily understood. […] And so Harris attends our training sessions for docents. And she talks to the artists often. I think she’s able to be, if not an authority, a welcome, informed voice for people coming in.”

The Unseen, But Palpable, Value In An Arts Organization

This month has been a reminder to me that people have all sorts of motivations for engaging with your performing arts organization–and often those motivations don’t have a lot to do with your primary purpose.

This month, a local magazine has featured a piece focused on the ghost stories associated with the historic theater at which I work.

As we were locking up Friday night following a double feature of the silent films, Nosferatu and the The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, there was a haunted places tour group standing outside talking about the ghosts that haunt the theater.

And on Wednesday, when we are handing out candy as part of the downtown trick or treating program, we will have people on hand ready to relate stories about the ghosts in our building.

Granted this isn’t too far off our core activity of storytelling as I imply, particularly in terms of making cultural history vivid and vital for people. In this case, it is literally about bringing vitality to ghosts.

I am learning that those ghost stories are part of what makes this place special for people. I am told even when the focus turns to another holiday in a few weeks, kids in the cast of Nutcracker always like to hear the ghost stories too. (Though we make sure to wait until the end of the Nutcracker run in case kids get nervous about entering the building.)

As I often mention, the value of an arts experience isn’t solely derived from the experience you are intentionally offering. Over the years, people create value spending time with others, discovering new things, being delighted by what they encounter—which is sometimes an inexplicable encounter with a disembodied entity.

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