Dream Houses: Architects Take Notes as Six Playwrights Imagine the Ideal Theatrical Space

By Estvanik, Nicole | American Theatre, July-August 2005 | Go to article overview

Dream Houses: Architects Take Notes as Six Playwrights Imagine the Ideal Theatrical Space


Estvanik, Nicole, American Theatre


This July, for the 15th year running, Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va., showcases a select group of new American plays. The 2005 quartet is comprised of Melinda Lopez's Sonia Flew, Sam Shepard's The God of Hell, Lydia Stryk's American Tet and Sheri Wilner's Father Joy.

CATF is also moving forward on another front: After raising the first $10 million of its capital campaign, it is finalizing plans for a new performing arts complex. The nearly $50-million project--scheduled for completion in 2011, with some facilities in use as early as 2009--includes two 250-seat theatres and a 150-seat lab theatre, as well as classrooms, offices, shop space and living quarters for resident artists.

This past January, while still in the "dream big" phase of design, CATF assembled some of its alumni to discuss what they as playwrights want and need from a theatre space--as well as what they'd as soon do without. The roundtable took place in the offices of Holzman Moss Architects, whose past projects include the renovations of Radio City Music Hall and the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theatre.

The playwrights were Stephen Belber (McReele), Lee Blessing (Going to St. Ives), Keith Glover (Thunder Knocking on the Door), Ruth Margraff (Red Frogs), Theresa Rebeck (Omnium Gatherum) and Wilner. Also at the table were CATF's producing director, Ed Herendeen; Malcolm Holzman of Holzman Moss; and theatre consultants Scott Crossfield and Robert Davis.

INCLUDING THE AUDIENCE

LEE BLESSING: If there's one adjective I'd apply to the space I want, it's "intimate." I grew up going to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, which was about 1,400 seats at the time, and it's one of the most intimate large stages in America. In CATF's current space, we did successful productions of my plays Thief River and Whores, but we had to fight the room.

SHERI WILNER: There are certain areas of some theatres where you know the audience is going to feel left out. Somehow the play isn't including them. On Broadway it's the "cheap seats."

SCOTT CROSSFIELD: Which seats are those in an intimate theatre?

THERESA REBECK: The ones behind the pole. (laughter)

BLESSING: I have a show right now at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J. The worst seats are the ones extreme left and extreme right. The minute you take anything downstage, those people get blocked.

CROSSFIELD: At what point is width unwieldy? You mentioned the Guthrie being extremely intimate--yet the seats go very wide there.

BLESSING: That's an extreme thrust. It was 360 degrees, really, until they eliminated some of those seats in 1993. When I first went to shows there in the 1960s, every director who worked on it treated it like an arena. There wasn't much of a set, and they directed people's backs as well as fronts. Whereas George Street really is only 180 degrees--it's a potentially unhappy mixture of a thrust and a proscenium.

KEITH GLOVER: Some directors have a hard time working at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., because it's in the round. But the first thing I said to the artistic director when I walked in there was, "This is great! It'll be basketball."

RUTH MARGRAFF: The architect Rem Koolhaas designed a wonderful shoe theatre for Prada's flagship store in Soho. You're not just buying shoes--you're watching other people buy shoes. I love that, when you can watch the rest of the audience. Also, I was just thinking how great it is to have the balcony in the Anspacher at the Public Theater in New York, which is one of my favorite spaces.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

STEPHEN BELBER: I saw a play from the balcony in the renovated Laura Pels Theatre, also here in New York. It was shockingly intimate for the back row of a balcony--they'd overhung it so much.

GLOVER: Balconies can help in terms of bringing in a younger audience. …

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