The Design of Theatre Space by Richard Pilbrow

Monday, February 24, 2014

With the benefit of long hindsight, I suppose I have been responsible for quite a few innovations in theatre space design that have affected theatres around the world. While my reputation as a lighting designer might suggest these innovations would have been largely technical; particularly led by the National’s drum revolve, power flying, and innovations in sound and lighting that were really revolutionary; the impact on artistic and architectural issues—upon the design of theatre space itself—has really been of greater import.

Theatre Royal Nottingham

Theatre Royal, Nottingham

My experience as as a stage manager, lighting designer and West End producer, coupled with my collaboration with Michael Elliott, Richard Negri, and then Iain Mackintosh, had led me to the growing realization that three-dimensional theatres of the past, with balconies and side-boxes that bring the audience into a close and vibrant relationship to the performer, possess virtues that were lost during many years of 'modern' 20th Century theatre architecture.

It was finally, In 1978, with the renovation of the 19th Century Theatre Royal, Nottingham, (architects Renton Howard Wood Levine renovating Phipps, then Matcham), that the full realization dawned upon me that such 'traditional' spaces brought actor and each audience member into a lively, interactive, interconnection that is fundamental to the truly living experience essential to all forms of live performance. In 1978, nobody would conceive of boxes and balconies being anything other than "old-fashioned", now I realized that returning to such traditional principals might open the way to a new form of modern theatre design.

From the courtyard theatres of Shakespearean England, the early opera houses of Italy, and the corrales of Lopa de Vegas' Spain, three dimensional theatre spaces evolved that all sought to  optimize the relationship between actor and audiences. Theatres grew in size and sophistication, but always strived to retain this vibrant intimacy. In the cultures of the Far East, similar courtyard theatres developed in India, China, and Japan with stage and auditorium united in a single congruent space. 

Since 1978, my leadership of Theatre Projects has led to innumerable theatres around the world being inspired by these classic principles of intimacy and actor/audience participation. Landmarks have included:

Christ’s Hospital, School, Horsham

Christ's Hospital School, Horsham, [see above] (based upon the Frank Dunlop’s Young Vic Theatre) and the NT's Cottesloe Theatre (designed by Iain Mackintosh of TPC) introduced the modern courtyard theatre, which has been widely imitated around the world; most recently with the Polonsky Theatre Center for Theatre for New Audiences in Brooklyn, New York. Christ's Hospital inspired the Royal Shakespeare's Swan Theatre that led to the new RSC theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, as well as TPC's Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. 

Royal Exchange, Manchester

The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, created by designer Richard Negri was the outcome of a multi-year partnership with director Michael Elliott and Richard that resulted in the world's first and most intimate multi-level theatre-in-the-round.

Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago

The horse-shoe shaped theatres of London's West End influenced TPC/Barton Myers Newmark Theatre in the Portland Center for the Performing Arts as well as the Belk Theatre, in the Blumenthal Center, Charlotte, NC., that drew inspiration from London's Coliseum Theatre.

The Belk was TPC's first large-scale multi-purpose hall in the USA. Such halls had long possessed third-rate reputations with their usually super-cinema style, wide fan-shaped, one-or-two level auditorium. My realization that reconfiguring such halls with three dimensional auditorium would yield a quality that would improve their acoustics, sight lines, and theatricality. A parallel approach with such halls in Cincinnati OH, Madison WI, and Dayton OH., has created large theatres that are equally successful for symphonic music as well as opera, ballet and lyric theatre.  

Overture Center, Madison, WI

For symphony, My innovations have been equally evident. The Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham, England, was to be acoustician Russell Johnson, and Richard's first 'pure' concert hall. It introduced unprecedented flexible staging and acoustic features, with lighting and sound installations that greatly broadened the types of musical performance that could be accommodated. This was followed by 'shoe-box' style halls in Calgary, Dallas, and Philadelphia that set new standard of superb acoustic quality with extended staging capability. 

Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles

For Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, I introduced similar staging capability to acoustician Nagata/Toyota's surround hall acoustical concept. This was followed by the same design team's New World Symphony in Miami Beach that added extensive surround video and internet2 connectivity capability. These innovations have dramatically extended the public's involvement in classical music performance. 

Flexible staging and changeable actor/audience relationships were pioneered in TPC'c courtyard theatres. For Northampton's Derngate Centre, I extended this concept to a larger scale that allowed a 1,500 seat room to convert from full symphony hall to opera/lyric theatre to a flat floored arena employing movable audience towers and seating banks on air castors, creating an enormously successful and heavily utilized popular venue. An even larger version of the concept has been successful in Cerritos, CA. On a smaller scale, the Wyly Theatre in Dallas TX, creates a fully flexible 500-seat courtyard theatre with balconies that can be completely removed to provide a large empty yet re-configurable space.

The threads linking all these innovations are fourfold. First flexibility, to offer new possibilities of stagecraft to directors and designers, and new experiences to audiences. Second, economy. Modern technology can assist in providing high quality, cost effective operations. Thirdly, intimacy. Above all else, live performance demands intimate contact between the artist and every member of the audience. Lastly, theatricality. Three-dimensional spaces for performance that congregate actor and spectator in lively juxtaposition to each other, are spaces that readily spring to life, ready to support that explosion of energy that makes live performance so irresistible.

Winspear Opera House, Dallas

TPC and I, have collaborated successfully with dozens of architects around the world to realize newly dynamic spaces for music, dance and theatre. These include Brian Avery, Norman Foster, Tim Foster, Frank Gehry, Hugh Hardy, Hertzog & Meuron, Michael Hopkins, Rem Koolhaas, Denys Lasdun, Levitt Bernstein, Barton Myers, Terry Pawson, Cesar Pelli, Renzo Piano, Fred Pilbrow, Christian de Portzamparc, William Rawn, Renton Howard Wood Levin, Moshe Safdie, Snohetta, Steve Tomkins, Michael Wilford, Keith Williams, and others too numerous to list.

The TP design team over the years has been led by myself and Iain Mackintosh with architects Eric Jordan, Paul Jenkins, Tim Foster, Neil Morton, Anne Minors, Peter Lucking, Brian Hall, Cy Almey, John Runia, Athos Zaghi, Mark Stroomer, John Coyne, and Scott Crossfield.