In this special guest blog, freelance theatre writer Leanne Thompson digs into what makes a theatre building work as it should.
Theatres are strange places. They exist to be used, so they need to be entirely functional. But they also exist to be filled with art and imagination, and so they (ideally) should be beautiful. In most cases there is a divide between the practicality needed in a space and allowing the architectural and design aesthetics to shine through. The theatre, however, is different. The theatre allows, and perhaps even expects, that this combination of style and functionality occurs. Here’s how.
A tilted stage can be a major asset when it comes to combining beauty and functionality in the theatre. It tricks the audience into seeing a much bigger stage than is actually there, thanks to the intentional forced perspective. That allows for a feeling of luxury and space, because the stage is actually smaller than a standard stage would be. The audience has more room to move, and to be comfortable and relaxed, and the tilted stage means they can have all this without knowing that they are effectively sacrificing part of the performance area. There are some things to consider before installing such a stage though. It may take some time for the performers to become used to the slope, so extra rehearsal time may need to be scheduled. And the trick won’t work ‘in the round’ – theatre chairs will all need to be facing the stage.
Thanks to some clever designers in the past, most (if not all) modern theatres have what is known as ascending seating. Stepped, in other words. This offers everyone the best view of the stage, no matter where they are sitting. The steeper the ascending seating, the better the view for everyone. Plus, from a psychological standpoint, steep seating gives an impactful sense of drama, not only when these seats are actually sat in, but also when they are seen upon entering the theatre. So functionality gets a big tick here, but so does attractiveness.
Depending on the show being performed, a shallower seating arrangement might be favoured. It won’t work for plays, concerts and the like, but for workshops, seminars, and other ‘audience participation’ events, they can work perfectly, allowing everyone to have an equal chance of being involved. Although not as dramatic as their steeper counterpart, there is something rather relaxing and gentle about the smooth flow of seats that are almost on the same level. If the final look has a flatness to it, then changing the seats themselves, designing them so that they are bespoke and a little more interesting, can change that in moments for the better.
Some theatres are modern. Some are classically designed. Some date back decades, perhaps even further. No matter what the interior of the theatre looks like, the furnishings need to match. It’s no use having an older theatre with ornate carvings and cherubs flying high above the audience within a crystal chandelier if the seating is blocky and up to date. Equally, seating with scrolling arms, for example, would look awfully out of place in a theatre that had been designed and built in the 21st century, and looked like a futuristic Jetsons kind of arts venue. Both styles can be beautiful, there is no doubt about that, but mixing styles, although it can be called eclectic, simply doesn’t work in this kind of public venue.
One thing that must never be forgotten when you’re designing a theatre is the acoustics. Without the right acoustics, the sound is going to be tinny, of poor quality, and may not even be heard at all in some areas of the auditorium. If the acoustics are bad, people won’t want to visit the venue. Worse than that, if the acoustics are bad, acts won’t want to visit the venue either. Then you’ll have a gorgeous but empty theatre sitting there losing money. So the acoustics have to right, which is a science in itself, and is why for those designing theatres calling in the experts to determine exactly how the acoustics need to go for the best sound quality is really the only way forward. And of course, the way the acoustics are brought to life can also be incorporated in the general design of the whole place.
Ever been to see a show and been so uncomfortable that you simply haven’t been able to enjoy it? So uncomfortable, in fact, that you were wishing time would speed up so you could get to the interval – or the end – as soon as possible and finally stand up? Probably. And what a waste of money that was. Plus, it’s unlikely you’ll remember much of the show if all you could focus on was your own discomfort. That’s why, no matter how interesting, quirky, and modern your seating is, the first thing it needs to be is comfortable. People need to be able to sit in it for an hour or more at a time. Everything else can come second to that.