A Lively Theatre

By Pilbrow, Richard | American Theatre, September 2000 | Go to article overview

A Lively Theatre


Pilbrow, Richard, American Theatre


There's a revolution afoot in THEATRE DESIGN believes architectural Consultant RICHARD PILBROW, that takes its cue from the three-dimension paces OF centuries past

The 20th century has not been a good time for theatre architecture.

In the years from the 1920s to the 1970s, the world became littered with overlarge, often fan-shaped auditoriums that are barren in feeling and lacking in intimacy--places that are seldom conducive to that interplay between actor and audience that lies at the heart of the theatre experience. Why do theatres of the 19th century feel so much more "theatrical"? And why do so many actors and audiences prefer the old to the new?

More generally, does theatre architecture really matter? There are some that believe that as soon as the house lights dim, the audience only needs to see and hear what happens on the stage. Perhaps audiences don't hiss, boo and shout during a performance any more, but most actors and directors know that an audience's reaction critically affects the performance. The nature of the theatre space, the configuration of the audience and the intimacy engendered by the form of the auditorium can powerfully assist in the formation of that reaction. A theatre auditorium may be a dead space or a lively one. Theatres designed like cinemas or lecture halls can lay a dead hand on the theatre experience.

Happily, the past 20 years have seen a revolution in attitude to theatre design. No longer is a theatre only a place for listening or viewing. There's a new recognition that theatre is also a place of feeling, emotion and participation and that the architecture must play a critical role--in a way that our ancestors took for granted.

TWO NEW/OLD THEATRES FOR DRAMA

Two new drama theatres have opened this year in New York and London. They are both restorations. In July the Selwyn, built in 1918, took off as the American Airlines Theatre, home to Manhattan's Roundabout Theatre Company. Last February, London's Royal Court Theatre, housed in a space that dates back to 1888 and home to such trailblazing English drama as Look Back in Anger, re-opened. Both represent high points of American and British theatre design.

And they exemplify some key differences between playhouses on the two sides of the Atlantic. Many theatres in London's West End (where my career began as a stage manager), despite their limited stages, have auditoriums that are miracles of compacted humanity. On my first visit to New York in the early '60s, I was amazed by how even more intimate the smaller Broadway theatres appeared. The English playhouse is comparatively narrow with a proscenium that rarely exceeds 30 feet in width. The auditorium is usually a deep horseshoe with overhanging balconies. Its American counterpart is much wider (perhaps a product of the land-plot ratios of New York City) with a wider proscenium opening, a shallower stage and auditorium, and a balcony very close to the stage. To the sides, angled, step-down boxes are a ubiquitous feature of an American theatre, as opposed to the horizontal boxes of the West End.

The reborn Selwyn is a fine example of its period. A proscenium theatre with a single balcony, it brings its audience into very close proximity to the stage. In 1918 the action of a play presented at the Selwyn would have been all behind the "picture frame," a confinement that is unacceptable today; so the renovation has had to improve the sightlines to a new forestage, with an increase of rake in the balcony seating. The side boxes on both orchestra and mezzanine levels that had been removed in years past have been restored and the orchestra rake improved.

The new Royal Court is a tiny gem. Its proscenium opening is only 21 feet wide. The auditorium is very vertical, tightly wrapped with two balconies. The refurbishment has stripped away the old plasterwork and exposed the Victorian cast iron structure of the balconies and bare brick walls. …

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