Perspectives on Twentieth-Century Theatre Architecture
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Setting the Scene
Perspectives on Twentieth-Century Theatre Architecture
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About This Book
During the twentieth century, an increasingly diverse range of buildings and spaces was used for theatre. Theatre architecture was re-formed by new approaches to staging and performance, while theatre was often thought to have a reforming role in society. Innovation was accompanied by the revival and reinterpretation of older ideas. The contributors to this volume explore these ideas in a variety of contexts, from detailed discussions of key architects' work (including Denys Lasdun, Peter Moro, Cedric Price and Heinrich Tessenow) to broader surveys of theatre in West Germany and Japan. Other contributions examine the Malmö Stadsteater, 'ideal' theatres in post-war North America, 'found space' in 1960s New York, and Postmodernity in 1980s East Germany. Together these essays shed new light on this complex building type and also contribute to the wider architectural history of the twentieth century.
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1 Fifty Years of Theatre-making Anecdotes and Aperçus
Some 20 years ago, I wrote Architecture, Actor and Audience.1 I was then Design Director of Theatre Projects Consultants and hence I did not the use the first person singular. Now, however, I am going to take the opportunity of relaxing into the first person singular. There will be little of the first person plural as I am not speaking on behalf of anybody other than myself. I no longer own any part of Theatre Projects, nor am I any longer a member of the Society of Theatre Consultants. The only consulting job I have completed recently was the new Garsington Opera Pavilion (2011) where I was able to find an architect for a client, Anthony Whitworth-Jones, who was reluctant to employ one at all. Despite having been part of the three-man client team on the design of the new Glyndebourne Opera House (Michael Hopkins and Partners, 1994) Anthony felt that at new Garsington it would be cheaper and simpler to deal with the contractors directly. I disagreed. The architect I suggested was the excellent Robin Snell whom we both knew as he had been project architect at Glyndebourne. Robin was appointed immediately and he and I set out the Garsington Opera Pavilion, taking advantage of the deer ha-ha in the Getty Garden to accommodate the orchestra pit. Quite like old times. The building won a lot of awards and reached the mid-list for the Stirling Prize for 2012.
In April 2012 I turned 75, just in time for the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain’s Symposium. In this version of the keynote paper that I presented on that occasion, I have amplified what I said on the developing role of the theatre consultant over the last 40 years in general and of my role in particular, and the various types of venue with which I have been involved. Thus this printed text is 25 per cent longer than what was read but remains couched in the style of an address to an audience. It cannot be thought of as a learned essay, hence there are few endnotes. In the original there were no illustrations and I warned the audience that, like Chorus in Henry V, I would ‘on your imaginary forces work’. Now I have been able to include some illustrations. These images may help to make a case for how some successful theatres evolved.
I joined the theatre to sweep the stage in October 1960. At school I had been educated to run the British Empire, as one was in the early 1950s. Intending to read Greats at Oxford, I forgot my Greek and Latin while doing National Service guarding Hong Kong, then a small but important part of our rapidly vanishing Empire. So, in common with others who had stepped out of education for two years, I took the easy way out and read Politics, Philosophy and Economics, at Worcester College, Oxford.
On graduating in 1960 I felt over-privileged – public school, officer in the army and a decent Oxford degree – and so decided to enter a profession where none of this mattered. Within a year, while doubling as the Resident Stage Manager of the Oxford Playhouse (a role that now would be called Technical Director), and with no money of my own, I co-founded the Prospect Theatre Company, and in the next 12 years took 70 of their productions to 125 theatres in 21 countries. Eight of these were for the Edinburgh International Festival, seven transferred to London’s West End and three were shown on national television. All productions were toured as we had no theatre of our own. Those 12 years on tour, both in Britain at a time when the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and National Theatre rarely toured, and abroad in Asia, Europe and Australia, introduced me to what makes a good theatre – not old not new, not big not small, not thrust not picture frame, but rather what does not work and what does work for actor and audience. Exploring just what that might be and attempting to reproduce those attributes when designing new spaces in association with many architects was to be my main task for the next 30 years. I ceased to be a producer in 1973 on accepting the invitation of Richard Pilbrow to become a Director of Theatre Projects Consultants.
I should confess that I never studied the technical side of theatre. Nor had I done any physics at school. I believed, like James Thurber’s aunt, that it is wise to stuff paper into an empty light socket lest the electricity leak out. Later on I studied neither architecture nor the histories of theatre, whether of theatre practice, theatre architecture or theatre painting. During my overlapping careers as theatre producer, as designer of theatre space, and as curator of theatre painting and theatre architecture exhibitions at the likes of the Hayward Gallery and the Royal Academy, very few knew that I was totally unqualified for anything other than firing guns and advising on politics, philosophy and economics. Now you know the extent of my fraud over 50 years. Lady Bracknell summed it up: ‘Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone’.
In the 1960s the clients for most new theatres in Britain were repertory theatre companies which produced their own shows, neither touring nor taking in tours. The theatres generally held around 550 and were dull and uniform. The Thorndike in Leatherhead (Roderick Ham, 1969), the Sherman at Cardiff (Alex Gordon and Partners, 1974), Theatr Clwyd at Mold (Clwyd County Architects, 1976) and the Derby Playhouse (Roderick Ham, 1975), all had a single unbroken bank of seating, with a shallow rake at the front becoming slightly steeper further back. It was thought a good thing that the stage openings of these 500-seaters were much wider than the 30/32 feet prosceniums of the 900 to 1,500-seat masterpieces of C.J. Phipps, Frank Matcham and W.G.R. Sprague in both the provinces and the West End.
At least these new playhouses, shaped from a single mould, fulfilled the too-rarely talked-about criterion of having half the audience below the actor’s eye line and half above. Increase the capacity of such a form and you get disaster: ever-wider stages and football-stadia auditoria towering above the actor, who has to act at the bottom of a well. See the doomed 900-seat single tier Birmingham Rep (Graham Winteringham, 1971). It failed to repeat the success of the much narrower and more intimate 1913 original, which at least had a single balcony to break the monotony. In the 1960s and 1970s, Modern theatre architects appeared to have no answer when it came to creating new theatres with capacities above 550 seats.
Yet there was an answer, which was to paper the walls with people. This was what architect Graham Law of Law and Dunbar-Nasmith did at Eden Court, Inverness (1976), the project on which I cut my teeth as his theatre design consultant (Figure 1.1). The goal was a theatre big enough for opera and yet intimate enough for drama. This is an aim which a hundred years ago produced all the great theatres of Britain but today too rarely governs the size of new auditoria.
Inverness at RIBA Workstage C (the concept design stage) looked like the single blocks of Leatherhead or Cardiff. We added two shallow balconies at the back and these we linked to the stage by three levels of boxes en escalier to give an auditorium capacity of 830. The scheme progressed to Stage D, detailed design, in 1973, and the scheme was shown to the Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT) Theatre Planning Committee. (This committee could be the subject of a useful PhD before all us original members from the late 1960s are dead.) It was the embrace of the actor by an auditorium with its walls papered with people which resulted in my being hired by ABTT committee member Richard Pilbrow of Theatre Projects Consultants (TPC). My brief was to humanise what architects sketched when in the grip of the functional fallacy that puts sightlines first and foremost and then inserts as much technology as the budget will bear.
The printed version of this text allows me space to give an explanation of the services a theatre consultant generally provides, which will provide a context for my own contributions to the design process. There are three aspects to the role, all of which TPC has offered. First, he or she specifies the theatre equipment in the three disciplines of stage engineering, stage lighting, and stage sound (something that is distinct from acoustics, although there is clearly a connection between that arcane science and theatre sound systems). Fees for this service were calculated as a percentage of the value of the equipment the theatre consultant specified, sent out for tender and watched over while the theatre was built and commissioned.
The second service, the need for which became rapidly apparent, was to advise client and architect on the detailed layout of the theatre building from box office to stage door, taking into account not just the wellbeing of both actor and audience but also ever more complex building regulations including Health and Safety. This we called ‘the one per cent of total building cost service’. This percentage was reduced when the architect was experienced at the specialist business of theatre architecture and was increased when the task was not to build on a greenfield site but comprised the more complex work of renovating and adding to a fine historic theatre deemed no longer fit for purpose.
The third service, which fee-wise was generally thrown in with the ‘one per cent’ theatre planning service, was different and comprised originating the architecture of the place where actor and audience meet. This is often referred to as ‘concept design’ to save the sensibilities of the many architects who like to think of all his or her consultants as nuts-and-bolts technicians while he or she, the architect, does the creative stuff. Providing such a service was my task on scores of theatres here and overseas. One knew one had performed a useful role when the architect took all the credit (not always, I hasten to add).
But the matrix has another dimension resulting from three entirely different sorts of client and thus places for the performing arts. The first, archetypal one is the creative client who needs a building for his own drama, opera or concerts. Such were the repertory companies, as was the Barbican Theatre (1982) conceived for the RSC by artistic director Peter Hall and his Head of Design, John Bury. (As it turned out, neither of them ever worked there.) In 2002 the RSC’s then Artistic Director, Adrian Noble, deserted the Barbican, passing up a City of London subsidy. He hated the theatre even though it had been designed specifically for the RSC. However, he then found it much more difficult and expensive to rent theatres for the RSC’s London seasons. Worse was the 1970 renovation of the 1766 Bristol Theatre Royal by Peter Moro who, obedient to the wishes of his client (the Artistic Director, Val May), removed the all-important rake to the stage and made other ‘improvements’ which the present Artistic Director, Tom Morris, now refers to as ‘the horrors of 1970’. Val May had planned the successful Nottingham Playhouse with Peter Moro but had left that theatre before it opened to go to Bristol.
The moral for theatre boards planning a new theatre and for architects who like to think when designing a theatre that they have a close relationship with a fellow creative person is this: do not put your faith in a single artistic director who not only can be misguided as was May but generally are here today (when the building is being planned) and gone tomorrow (when the theatre finally opens). Better study successful theatres of all ages, make up your own minds, and employ not only a sensible architect but also a good theatre consultant who is not afraid to make his own proposals.
The second sort of performing arts space has fortunately almost vanished: the multipurpose building. Many were built in Britain, usually by well-meaning local authorities, in the 1970s and 1980s. Most are best forgotten, especially by those architects and theatre consultants who thought they could achieve the impossible and be all things to all men.
The third type of venue is the more recent carefully considered new touring theatre aimed at bringing ‘touring product’ to a large community that lacked an existing fine Theatre Royal or Empire. Such are often combined with art galleries and good restaurants. These new touring theatres, which lack their own producing company, can be successful, viz. the Milton Keynes Theatre (Andrzej Blonski and Michael Heard, 1999) and The Lowry at Salford (Michael Wilford, 2000). The latter had been designed and was almost complete by the time the Director who was to run it had been appointed. Such a process demands a symbiotic relationship between the main client, architect and design team, including the theatre consultant who has no artistic client to whom to refer while the theatre is being designed. This is what happened at Salford under the leadership of Michael Wilford. I know how this worked because for TPC I designed The Lowry’s second auditorium, the Quays Theatre, which is almost a clone of the successful Martha Cohen Theatre at Calgary, Canada (Raines, Finlayson and Barrett, 1985) that I had designed in collaboration with architect Joel Barrett. That did save a lot of time: the Salford architects took it on trust and traced it off, making minor changes without even visiting Calgary. I also helped pitch the capacity of the larger auditorium of The Lowry at 1,200 which gave the North West a theatre not too large for the National Theatre on tour but with just enough capacity for more intimate opera and ballet productions that might be swamped in the neighbouring 2,000-seaters of Manchester.
Soon after joining Theatre Projects Consultants in 1973 I found myself designing the as-yet unnamed Cottesloe Theatre, which was to be the smallest venue within the National Theatre on London’s South Bank. (After a recent refurbishment it has reopened as the Dorfman Theatre.) In the first instance I was working for my good friend, the stage designer John Bury who, after leaving the RSC, had become Head of Design at the National. The National’s two main auditoria, the Olivier and the Lyttelton, were then under endless construction and appeared to me to be very large and somewhat ungainly. A third performance space had been intended to be housed in a void under the stage of the Olivier; when this third auditorium was put on hold, architect Denys Lasdun craftily retained the void on the grounds that its walls were holding up the Olivier. This vast empty space was large enough to tether Zeppelins, though what was planned to go in it had been originally intended to hold only 200 people, hence the small foyers that were provided. In the autumn of 1973, the National’s incoming Artistic Director, Peter Hall, decided that a fully flexible third space was necessary for the National, and instructed John Bury to explore with TPC low-cost solutions for filling the void. Having made a lightning visit to the site I asked Richard Pilbrow whether I could have a shot at doing just this over one weekend
My idea was to narrow the large space by inserting two galleries down the long sides each with a row of seats. Behind was to be a leaning rail for audience standing, an encircling gangway for actors and audience, with, further behind still, single flight staircases. The result was a manageable internal width between parallel balconies of 9.9m (approximately 32ft), which is the standard English playhouse proscenium width. The 9.9m was divisible into three (3.3m) and into four (2.475m). The latter gave a sweet spacing for the columns supporting the galleries. The 9.9m was also divisible into 12, which gave a back-to-back spacing for seating of 825mm, adequate for a studio. The 9.9m produced a width of 16 seating places at 475mm centres plus two gangways at 1.1m. Thus the Cottesloe, holding 300 to 500 depending on layout, came with a module attached which was supported by a philosophy of the fixed and the flexible. The levels on three sides were fixed. The central area was flexible and you could perform wherever you liked. You could put the audience, other than those seated on the fixed galleries, where you liked and you could build settings where you liked, using the module if you chose.
The small foyers were already set out and the main entrance level had been built, with the passages leading to the projected auditorium terminating ...
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Citation styles for Setting the Scene
APA 6 Citation
Fair, A. (2016). Setting the Scene (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1632935/setting-the-scene-perspectives-on-twentiethcentury-theatre-architecture-pdf (Original work published 2016)
Fair, Alistair. (2016) 2016. Setting the Scene. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1632935/setting-the-scene-perspectives-on-twentiethcentury-theatre-architecture-pdf.
Fair, A. (2016) Setting the Scene. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1632935/setting-the-scene-perspectives-on-twentiethcentury-theatre-architecture-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Fair, Alistair. Setting the Scene. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.