Intimacy Is the Key

By Starobin, Naomi | Stage Directions, August 2002 | Go to article overview

Intimacy Is the Key

Starobin, Naomi, Stage Directions


Veteran theater consultant discusses the recent evolution in theater design.

In 1978, Richard Pilbrow's mind was on intimacy. There just wasn't enough of it. It was a lightbulb moment he had while sitting in the audience at the Theatre Royal Nottingham in England. "It reeked of theatricality," Pilbrow recalls. "It was amazingly intimate; it was a space vibrant with emotion. It was a revelation!"

Pilbrow helped design the renovation of the beautiful old 1865 theater. What struck him as he watched the opening night performance was the energy and intimacy between the performer and the audience. He could feel the ripples of laughter move around the theater, from the boxes to the balconies, then to the orchestra seats and back to the performer. "The people on the sides capture the spirit of the room and send it into the audience," he says, "but they also send it back to the stage."

It's the old theaters, he realized, which foster that intimacy by having the audience closer to the stage. It's done by putting them in boxes lining the side of the hall and in balconies close to the stage. Modern halls, with their fanshaped plans, empty side walls and vast balconies, don't allow performers to "feel" the audience.

There, in Nottingham, the seeds of a theater revolution were planted. "Since the 1970s," Pilbrow relates, "some of us have been trying with modern architecture to recapture a theater of the past. Because, finally, a theater, a concert hall, any place with live performances is not only about looking and listening. It's about emotion and reaction; and artists performing live are enormously influenced by the reaction they receive from the audience."

As Pilbrow and the firm he founded, Theatre Projects Consultants, headquartered in South Norwalk, Connecticut, now approach five decades of theater design, the revolution continues. Why, one wonders, did architects and theater designers abandon the features of the great old theaters and opera houses of the past?

Pilbrow says it happened for three reasons. In the 19th century, Richard Wagner led an aesthetic movement, preferring halls without side boxes. He didn't like them, says Pilbrow, "because he thought they were the upper classes sitting in boxes flirting with each other and not concentrating on his action onstage."

In fact, Wagner designed a 2,000-seat opera house called the Festspielhaus ("Festival House's in Bayreuth, Germany to his liking. Although it is said to have excellent acoustics, it is sparse. The hall is shaped like an amphitheater. Wagner wanted each seat to have equally good sight lines. There are no middle aisles and no boxes. Wagner created an intentional separation between the stage and the audience, which he called a "mystical abyss."

Second, the advent of movie theaters had an enormous influence on theater architecture. Since communication at movie theaters is oneway-from the screen to the audience-seeing and hearing (as opposed to interacting) takes priority.

Last came modern architecture,which prized functionality, simple lines and lack of ornamentation. There was no room for curving balconies or cascading boxes along the side of the hall. "So a view arose," says Pilbrow, "that the fan-shaped hall was one that had perfect sight lines, perfect acoustics and didn't have those silly boxes on the sides of the room for the snobs."

Pilbrow is certainly not the only advocate of the metamorphosis away from sterile auditoriums, but his enthusiasm for the concept is hard to beat. Since the 1970s, Pilbrow's firm has designed scores of theaters with intimacy in mind. His favorites are in Chicago, Illinois, Charlotte, North Carolina as well as Manchester and London, England (see sidebar).

Each project, of course, is based on the needs of the client and what sort of performances will be held. What they have in common is how the audience-performer dynamic is achieved. …

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