Theatres

5 KEY TRENDS - Theatre design trends

With the 2017 World Architecture Festival celebrating ‘Performance’ as its theme, Kim Megson delves into the innovative world of theatre design, with the help of Charcoalblue founder Andy Hayles


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Andy Hayles has worked in the world of theatre consultancy and design for the best part of two decades, and was a theatre electrician and lighting designer before that.

He co-founded theatre design and consultancy practice Charcoalblue in 2004, and the studio has gone on to work on some of the world’s most famed and acclaimed theatres: from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre redevelopment in Stratford-upon-Avon to the Stirling Prize-winning Everyman and Playhouse in Liverpool and the Young Vic in London.

“My mum still struggles to understand what I do,” Hayles admits to CLAD with a laugh. “I tell her, ‘I design spaces where maybe 1,000 people go to watch another group of people pretending to be yet other people. They’re crammed into this room and seated in a tighter space than their sofa at home. Then the lights are switched off. My job is to make sure they stay awake and attentive, are comfortable and can leave the building safely if anything goes wrong. And the experience has got to be engaging enough for them to come back next week.’ When you put it in those terms, it’s a really odd thing to do as a career!”

Charcoalblue have partnered with some of the world’s foremost architects, and forthcoming projects include the Factory in Manchester, with Rem Koolhaas and OMA, and the Perelman Performing Arts Center in New York, with Joshua Prince-Ramus and REX. While Hayles says the team “love the process of collaboration”, he concedes it is usually the architect who gets the lion’s share of the recognition and media coverage.

“We want to remind people that everything that happens in the auditorium starts with the actor-audience relationship,” he says. “The architects are highly involved of course, but the theatre consultant carries the joy and the burden of making that part of the theatre work. We know we’ll never be the ones on the cover of the design magazines, and we don’t really aspire to be, but we’re really proud of what we do.”

This year theatre design is set to finally emerge from the shadows. The 2017 World Architecture Festival has adopted ‘Performance’ as its theme, with seminars and exhibitions exploring the very best examples of theatre design.

To celebrate all things theatre, we asked Hayles to talk us through five of his most exciting emerging design trends, backed up by some CLAD case studies

1. Renovating existing theatres

“I think we’ll soon see a lot more instances of re-using existing theatre stock, not just refurbishing them but dynamically adapting them to meet what artists now require. I was at a conference recently, and a couple of theatre directors said: ‘Why are we building new theatres? We just don’t need them, we’d rather be putting on plays in warehouses now.’ The demand for renovation and adaptive use projects is growing, particularly as it’s a cheaper and more environmentally sustainable way of doing things.

“One big issue is how to get more intensive use out of the auditorium. Aside from shows and the odd rehearsal, they’re wasted spaces for so much of the daytime. The National in London was quick to spot this, and we helped them adapt the auditorium of their Dorfman Theatre – creating a system where you can fold seats into the floor and elevate the rows on elevators – to create a more flexible space that can host educational classes and workshops in the daytime on a flat floor, as well as host shows at night with raked seats.

“Theatres have lots of new competition. If they don’t update their facilities, which can be more than a hundred years old, they may lose.”

Case Study 1

The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare
Chicago, US

Gordon Gill, AS+GG founding partner
Gordon Gill, AS+GG founding partner

Charcoalblue and Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture (AS+GG) have just completed The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare – an ambitious adaptive reuse project along the city’s Navy Pier.

The duo have repurposed elements of the former Skyline Stage, constructing a fully enclosed, year-round theatre chamber beneath the pier’s iconic white tent, with fewer than six inches of clearance at the narrowest point between the steel beams and the canopy.

Eighteen 95ft-long (29m) micropiles were driven into the lake’s bedrock below Navy Pier to support the additional weight of The Yard. The Skyline’s stage house and backstage support areas were all refurbished for reuse.

Nine audience seating towers, each the size of a London double-decker bus on end, can be rearranged in 12 different configurations, with audience capacities ranging from 150 to 850. Compressed air skid technology used in the aeronautical industry lifts each of the 15.8 tonne towers marginally off the ground on a bed of air, allowing them to be moved by a three-person team.

The 33,000sq ft (3,000sq m) site is connected to Chicago Shakespeare’s existing building and smaller theatre via a new two-level glass lobby.

Construction began in March 2016, and was completed in 18 months at a cost of only US$35m (E30m, £26m) – or under half of what would have been required to build a new venue from scratch.

“The Yard’s ability to adapt to the needs of the art is genuinely innovative,” says Gordon Gill. “We’ve accomplished it in a sustainable and cost-conscious way, which I believe will make it a model for theatres to come.”

Nine huge audience seating towers can be rearranged in 12 different configurations / Image: James Steinkamp Photography
Nine huge audience seating towers can be rearranged in 12 different configurations Image: James Steinkamp Photography

2 Flexibility in the theatre

“Directors and designers love flexibility, and it’s something we as theatre building designers have to think ever more about these days. But even if we present a manual of nine different pre-approved, safety certified configurations they can use, the creative team often invent a tenth we haven’t come up with! Automation has its place – putting staging and seats on lifts and so on – especially where labour costs are high, but where we can we prefer a ‘back to basics’ approach, because it’s easier to maintain and flexibility can actually be improved by minimising heavy machinery.

“The Schaubuenhe in Berlin, refurbished in the 70s, is a cautionary example of what can go wrong with too much machinery. It was filled with elevators, winches and acoustic doors with three separate theatres that could be merged. But when you have so much machinery, you create other constraints. If you need to lift the stage diagonally, you have to build a stage on top of the lifts, and you can’t cut a hole in the floor for a trap door, because there’s a lift in the way blocking the actor.

“For the Perelman Performing Arts Center in New York, we’ve tried to learn from our forebears.

So although we need to achieve 11 configurations and merge several spaces, apart from one area of the largest theatre we’ve used low-tech rostra, because it’s easy to assemble and move and lets you do almost everything you could need.”

Case Study 2

The Shed
New York, US

David Rockwell says flexibility has been built into The Shed’s DNA
David Rockwell says flexibility has been built into The Shed’s DNA

Architecture firms Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Rockwell Group are nearing completion of an expandable cultural venue in New York’s burgeoning Hudson Yards district.

The 200,000sq ft (18,500sq m) structure comprises two principal components: an eight-level fixed building, including two large scale column-free galleries and a 500-seat theatre; and a telescoping outer shell, which sits on a set of rails that allow it to be expanded and contracted.

Inspired by the Fun Palace – an unbuilt, experimental building-machine imagined by the 1960s British architect Cedric Price – The Shed will adapt to ever-changing demands over size, media and technological complexity.

“We’re creating the conditions for a whole range of artists to connect with audiences in a range of ways that feels vital and alive,” David Rockwell tells CLAD. “In theatres, flexibility has been something of a double-edged sword. Here it should be a liberating empty stage for new works of both visual and performing arts. Who knows what the demands for these spaces will be in 15 years time? To create flexibility, we’ve designed a building as infrastructure.

“There are a whole series of interconnected spaces designed for simultaneous programmes. It will be a kind of urban festival in terms of the number of things that can go on at the same time. The deployable outer shell can, within five minutes, create a totally rigged 120ft tall (36.5m) light, sound and temperature controlled hall that can serve an infinite variety of needs for a standing audience of 2,700 or a seated audience of 1,250. There’s also 20,000sq ft (1,800sq m) of outdoor space, so flexibility is built into the DNA of the project.”

The Shed’s telescoping outer shell sits on rails and can be expanded and contracted
The Shed’s telescoping outer shell sits on rails and can be expanded and contracted

3 Theatres in found spaces

“I don’t know if this trend ever went away, but it’s certainly becoming increasingly popular for young theatre-makers to put on shows rough and ready, wherever they can. Any building can be a theatre – from an old warehouse to a multi-storey car park.
“As a theatre building designer working on a found space, the challenge is to listen to the building and let it talk to you. If you fight it, you can end up spending a lot of money to little effect. Why expend loads of effort trying to make the small rooms of a telephone exchange sound like a concert hall? Try a voluminous cave instead!

“The advantage of found spaces is they can become the centre of really immersive theatrical experiences. You control the whole environment, not just the scenery as you might in a more conventional space.”

Case Study 3

St Ann’s Warehouse
New York, US

Marvel Architects, led by Jonathan J. Marvel, renovated the warehouse
Marvel Architects, led by Jonathan J. Marvel, renovated the warehouse

Marvel Architects worked with Charcoalblue to transform a derelict 1840s tobacco warehouse on the bank of New York’s East River into an avant-garde year-round performing arts facility. Old elements were carefully restored, while low-key interventions saw the warehouse become home to a versatile theatre space with a capacity for 300–700 people; a multi-use community room; an open-air garden created within the existing brick walls; and dressing-rooms, offices and backstage facilities.

“It was a ruin without a roof, only used for the occasional market,” says Charcoalblue co-founder Andy Hayles. “Then the St Ann’s theatre company were moved out of their home across the street, and they took the warehouse over.

“It once had five storeys, but after the roof and top three floors fell in, it became this big empty space. We followed the rhythm of the old building, looking at what had been there before to add a few new columns. To let natural light in, we popped the new roof above the level of the existing brick wall.

“The opening show was Phyllida Lloyd’s version of Shakespeare’s Tempest – presented as a show put on by the inmates in a women’s prison. They built an exercise yard complete with wire fence, and blue plastic bucket seating. The actors marched in through the lobby in orange jumpsuits and wardens came into the bar, blowing whistles and shouting at us to take our seats. It was so immersive, and all supported in this space that the theatre didn’t have to build.”

Charcoalblue transformed an old New York warehouse into an atmospheric theatre / Image: Dustin Nelson
Charcoalblue transformed an old New York warehouse into an atmospheric theatre Image: Dustin Nelson

4 Temporary theatres

“People fall in love with temporary theatres, so much so they’re having increasingly long lives. Take London’s Young Vic, which was only meant to be there for five years, but was so popular that it was renovated to become permanent. Temporary venues are often the best solution for someone with a limited budget and the need to create something a bit different.

“For example, we built a little temporary theatre with the architects Haworth Tompkins for the National. It was just a simple 200-seat auditorium, with a grill around the bottom to let fresh air in, four chimneys to let the hot air out, and a simple lighting rig. We wanted to have a 13 amp plug connected to the walls of the National to show how little energy is actually needed to run a space of this size.

“It cost just over £1m and was used for three years – two years longer than planned. It’s a great reminder that you don’t need to spend hundreds of millions to realise a great theatre.

“If more people built with sustainability and efficiency in mind from the start, there would be more spaces for communities who need them.”

Case Study 4

The Container Globe
Detroit, US

Entrepreneur Angus Vail wants to build Container Globes around the world
Entrepreneur Angus Vail wants to build Container Globes around the world

Construction started in September 2017 on a close replica of William Shakespeare’s famous Globe Theatre, with two key differences from the original: this version is located in Detroit and is being built entirely out of stacked shipping containers.

The Container Globe is the brainchild of entrepreneur Angus Vail, who wants to build cost-effective venues around the world to host performances of the Bard.

Architecture studios Perkins Eastman and Cost+Plus have created the design brief, which is described as “a punk reimagining” of Shakespeare’s concept, while the New York office of Arup have provided consultation on the acoustics, lighting, fire safety and accessibility aspects.

The layout will closely mirror that of the original Globe Theatre, which was built in 1599 in the London borough of Southwark and reconstructed in 1997.

Designed as a theatre in the round, huge crowds could stand as close as possible to the action, with it not uncommon for spectators to leap on stage to join the scripted brawls, sword fights and moments of high drama.

Vail is seeking to mirror this electric atmosphere, “which makes the plays more accessible, and just plain more fun, for people to watch, rather than just sitting back in a dark theatre.”

The galleries, stage and backstage areas will all be created using stacked and fastened shipping containers, scaffolding and other readily-available building materials, and the theatre will have a demountable base, meaning it can either be a temporary or permanent addition to the city.

“We’re fabricating the containers as we go and building the prototype on site so we can experiment, make the requisite mistakes and work towards the ‘complete’ Container Globe,” Vail told CLAD. “We hope that as we build the real thing, donors and investors will really weigh in to make these theatres viable.”

The galleries, stage and backstage areas will be built using shipping containers / Images: Container Globe
The galleries, stage and backstage areas will be built using shipping containers Images: Container Globe

5 Theatres as community spaces

“Making your theatre a lot more inclusive and accessible to the whole community is a really exciting emerging trend. Currently, most lobbies are empty in the day time. In the West End, they open half an hour before the show begins. That’s wasted real estate. If you’re an austerity-pressed council spending all that money, why would you want to build all those square metres of space that are hardly used?

“We recently worked with Bennetts Associates on The Storyhouse in Chester, and their genius was to actually place the new town library in the lobby, where you can not only buy a ticket for a show when you go to borrow a book, but also have a G&T while you read the paper! There’s intensive daytime use, so it’s an innovative piece of value engineering. It’s such a delight that if you go six hours before a show, it’s really buzzing.

“We experienced a similar thing with the Young Vic. Where else can you go at eight in the morning, get a croissant and stay for the day? When it opened, one reviewer said ‘this is the best bar in London, and apparently it’s got a theatre attached.’ If all the buildings we work on got that amount of life inside all day, we’d be delighted.”

Case Study 5

Storyhouse
Chester, UK

Simon Erridge, director at Bennetts Associates, believes community is key
Simon Erridge, director at Bennetts Associates, believes community is key

Chester’s former Odeon cinema had been closed for over a decade when architects Bennetts Associates and Charcoalblue embarked on a design to develop the building into a multi-purpose arts centre, library and theatre able to switch between thrust and proscenium formats.

“We chose to put the theatre in new space next door and attached it to the old cinema, which we hollowed out to make a vast Art Deco space for a new cinema, library and cafe,” says Simon Erridge, director at Bennetts Associates. “The theatre had to be a more complex shape, so we housed that in a new extension. The result is this very accessible 180m-long (354ft) cultural hub for the community.

“The variety of uses is important, because it has to be open all day if the organisation that runs it is to make enough revenue, support ticket prices and create a lively public venue for the city.

“There’s no box office with a desk. You walk straight through into the library and cafe, and it feels very welcoming. There are people in T-shirts if you have a question, so there’s no intimidation at the front door. You drift in and the building takes you over, like a living room for the city.

“As a model, it’s unique and will likely be repeated. Storyhouse is an 18-hour a day building that’s alive seven days a week. You see mothers, young kids, students, older people – it’s a massively broad demographic and that demonstrates its success.”

Storyhouse is home to a library and bar, as well as a cinema and theatre / Images: Peter Cook
Storyhouse is home to a library and bar, as well as a cinema and theatre Images: Peter Cook
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