The real drama in Boston’s theater district? The intermission dash to the ladies’ room.
Paula Brennan presides over the 22-toilet lower-lobby women’s restroom at the Boston Opera House like a bingo matron.
Microphone in hand, keen eye on the doors, she calls out the numbers of the stalls the second a patron starts to depart.
“11 is available, 12 is available, 9 is available,” she said over the flushing during a recent intermission of Boston Ballet’s “The Sleeping Beauty.” “13 is available, 10 is still available.”
In Boston’s Theatre District, not all the drama happens on stage. The real tension often strikes at intermission, when hundreds, or maybe a thousand women, dash for limited bathrooms, and the fear of missing the curtain call competes with the dread of sitting through the second act distracted by a full bladder.
Ladies, you’ve got 15 minutes — go!
But women aren’t the only ones feeling the pressure. In 2017, theater operators are, too. They need to satisfy female patrons who are increasingly unwilling to accept lines when the men’s room is nearly empty. But they’re working with tight spaces and roughly century-old buildings that often have landmark status, a designation that makes renovation pricey and challenging.
The combination leaves many of the city’s high-profile venues — the Opera House, the Wang Theatre, and the Shubert Theatre among them — turning to a decidedly low-tech solution: a human being.
“It’s not rocket science,” Brennan, a vibrant 81-year-old, said of her work. But the line moves an estimated twice as quickly when she (or another matron) is spotting empty stalls, and women regularly tell her she’s better than the show.
“They ask to take a picture with me,” she said.
The Opera House managed to add eight women’s toilets about five years ago — an endeavor that involved an architect, a set designer, and a mandate that the new sink fixtures did not touch the historic walls.
But despite the new toilets, women are still waiting in line. The theater plans to add four more women’s stalls (and perhaps some urinals or men’s toilets) but for now there is Brennan, and she rules with a heart and a stopwatch.
If a woman with a walker is trying to make her way down the bathroom’s narrow aisle, Brennan will instruct the other women to remain in their stalls. “They do,” she said.
If she sees a woman holding a cellphone, she’ll also issue an order: “No texting in here.”
The long lines for the ladies’ room can be traced to the theaters’ history. They were built long before most people had ever heard of the notion of a “potty parity” law, which requires men and women to have approximately the same wait for the loo, and they predate a time when Massachusetts plumbing codes recognized the need for more women’s toilets than men’s.
The state’s plumbing code was updated in the early 1990s to require theaters to provide at least one toilet per 30 females, and one toilet per 60 males (half of the male fixtures may be urinals).
But not only are the old theaters grandfathered in (unless the theater seeks to make certain changes), the ratio isn’t as female-friendly as it seems. The plumbing code assumes an equal number of female and male patrons, but two thirds of the Broadway audience is female, according to a 2015-2016 report by the Broadway League .
That ratio appeared to hold up on a recent weekend in Boston. At a recent Annie matinee at the Wang, the audience was dominated by moms, grandmas, and little girls dressed as Annie.
When intermission hit, the angst outside the mezzanine ladies room was palpable.
“I am really stressed,” said Beth McLaughlin, of Raynham. She was 52nd in line.
The clock was ticking. The restroom had three stalls. The line was packed with girls wearing tights that were cute but time consuming.
McLaughlin considered darting to a different — and perhaps emptier — bathroom, but feared losing her spot. “It’s risky,” she said.
But the Wang was prepared for the situation. House manager Kelly Artamonov played the role of fixer. Armed with a walkie-talkie and stationed strategically between the mezzanine men’s and women’s rooms, she watched men breezing into their facilities while the crowd outside the ladies room grew agitated.
Then she made a command decision: The men’s room would flip to a women’s room. “Come this way,” she told the back half of the ladies line.
The battalion marched triumphantly to the men’s room and waited as a few stragglers wandered out, surprised to have an audience. “Go for it,” one guy said when told about the ladies’ change in fortune.
This past January, an amendment to the plumbing code went into effect that allows for gender-designated toilets to be replaced by single-user gender-neutral bathrooms so long as each gender is affected equally. It’s a move that more offices and restaurants — and at least one prominent theater — are making.
In Cambridge, the American Repertory Theater replaced the signs for men’s and women’s rooms with signs reading “Individual Stalls” and “Individual Stalls & Urinals.”
The theater made the move ahead of the Jan. 19 opening of “Trans Scripts, Part I: The Women,” a play that aims to raise awareness of transgender issues.
The goal was to “walk the walk,” in the words of Matt Spano, the front of the house manager.
Bathroom-line-induced stress isn’t just a problem at theaters, of course. As society demands ever better customer service — and operators recognize that it’s hard to increase food and beverage revenue if half the audience is afraid of triggering the need for a bathroom break, or is waiting on line — bathrooms are being added around town.
Since 2002, for example, Fenway Park, has increased the number of toilets in the women’s rooms by approximately 50 percent, and the number of toilets and urinals in the men’s rooms by about 40 percent. The Red Sox did not have an exact toilet count.
Meanwhile, as Shakespeare wrote, the play is the thing. But the bathroom is the other thing.
When Michael Maso, the managing director of the Huntington Theatre Company, briefs staff, board members, or the public about the theater’s planned renovation — which involves a grand vision of a bright and airy lobby — he knows one improvement is a sure crowd-pleaser: There will be more women’s toilets.
“There is always an eruption of applause,” said Joey Riddle, director of theatre operations.