“I can take any empty space,” wrote the great director Peter Brook, “and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space while someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”
This, it turns out, is just as well. Because it might be all that’s left. As the world’s theatres — mostly dark and mothballed — begin tentative plans for reopening, the alternatives are not heartening.
“If this virus had been designed to destroy theatre it couldn’t have been designed any better,” David Lan, former director of the Young Vic, tells me via Zoom. “It’s a very painful moment.”
Without ticket sales, the industry is atrophying. London’s West End theatres, the late 19th-century red-velvet-and-gilt playhouses, look forlorn and abandoned. Just as you couldn’t design a virus any better to destroy theatre, you couldn’t design theatres more hospitable to infection than these. Crushed bars, cramped toilets, narrow corridors and closely packed seating seem an insoluble nightmare in an age of pandemic.
“Those Victorian and Edwardian playhouses are at a maximum disadvantage now,” says Steve Tompkins, the architect behind the Young Vic, Liverpool Everyman, National Theatre and currently the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
But, he adds, “that proximity is where the electricity gets generated”. This applies both on stage and off. Actors bellowing at each other, embracing and emoting are as problematic as their coughing, spluttering and peeing audiences. The harsh question for architects may be whether theatre makers are too attached to their buildings. Does theatre need to take place in a theatre? Brook certainly didn’t think so, and the trend towards performing in industrial spaces might have found its moment.
The Friche la Belle de Mai in Marseille, the Cartoucherie in Paris and the Matadero in Madrid are all found spaces; the former tobacco works, munitions factory and slaughterhouse show that theatre can thrive in spaces built for something very different yet can become as theatrical as any purpose-built playhouse.
“Places like the Cartoucherie are magical, but there’s also something fundamental about the continuity of place represented by a theatre,” says Tompkins. “If we abandon those buildings [traditional theatres], we would do so at our peril. There has been a lot about buildings sucking funding out of theatre, with too much money dedicated to the structures, but I see it all as a web . . . all the component parts [are] indispensable.”
One of Tompkins’ major early works was the Royal Court in London’s Sloane Square, a reworking of a conservative building for a radical institution. I ask its director, Vicky Featherstone, what the crisis means for theatre.
“The Royal Court was a reaction to the postwar condition,” she says, adding that this moment might represent another such transformation. “We can’t carry on as before. In the crisis, we’ve been unable to cover over the cracks in society, the socio-economic, racial and health inequalities. Theatre always holds a mirror up to society.”
In New York that postwar shift was represented by Shakespeare in the Park. Joe Papp’s free shows in Central Park drew keen audiences from groups that might otherwise never have attended a play. His innovation radically changed engagement with theatre in the city.
Outdoor theatre, given what we now know about the virus, might be a solution. Yet the Central Park venue, the Delacorte, like London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe, has been closed. Installing Covid-compliant measures has so far proved too tricky and too expensive.
“Everyone wants to do something outside,” says Andy Hayles of theatre consultant Charcoalblue, “but it isn’t easy. You end up needing a rig like you might for a U2 stadium concert.” Featherstone agrees that the logistics of moving a production outdoors are daunting. “When I did events with the National Theatre of Scotland where we tried to create a model of a theatre without walls . . . we ended up using 90 per cent of our budget on cabling.”
But have we become too wedded to the physical fabric of the theatre? “No,” Featherstone says. “Since the [ancient] Greeks, theatre has been about a specially designed place that enables and strengthens a relationship with and between an audience, and we mustn’t be embarrassed about that.”
For existing theatres the challenge of getting audiences back is fearsome. Recently announced plans for London’s Palladium involve airlocks, infrared cameras and remote temperature-taking: hardly practical for most already cash-strapped venues. Audience members might be seated two metres apart, sitting on disposable seat covers and wearing masks — as in recent images of the auditoria of German theatres, with social distancing implemented and a few straggling audience members, which look heartbreakingly bleak.
Few theatres could operate at such reduced capacity. Most work on margins requiring at least 85 per cent of the seats to be filled night after night; 20 per cent would be a death sentence, financially as well as emotionally. And bars (where theatres make much of their money) would remain closed.
On stage, actors would need to distance themselves from each other, to an extent depending on the projection — singing, for instance, demands greater separation. Cramped backstage areas and dressing rooms would be a nightmare. All that is before we get to toilets.
“Loos,” says Andy Hayles “are the front line.” Toilets in historic buildings were already problematic in terms of crowding, but fixing them for pandemic conditions is probably impossible.
In some respects, the once much-maligned modernist theatres have the advantage, with large social spaces, better facilities and more generous accommodation. Historic theatres, however, have some features that might have made them more amenable to adaptation. Boxes, for instance, are ideal for a family or social unit, and older buildings have separate entrances for the different classes of ticket holders. But that kind of social separation has become unfashionable.
What, then, about theatres under construction right now? Can they be pandemic-proofed? Joshua Ramus’s practice REX is building a new theatre on the World Trade Center site in New York. I ask him whether he has been able to incorporate any responses to the new conditions.
“No,” he replies bluntly. “Even if we did think changes could be implemented, we’re not sure if they could be done with much intelligence at this stage. Live performance is intrinsically tied to the energy of intimacy. I shudder to think what’d happen if we asked audiences to sit six feet apart. It’d kill theatre as an art form.”
New York’s The Shed indicates one possible future. Its architect, Liz Diller, says, “When we first imagined The Shed it was as a building for a future that was unknowable, a design which wouldn’t become immediately obsolete. With the pandemic, that unknowable future arrived.”
The Shed’s capacious canopy can be opened to allow fresh air in and accommodate a more spaced-out crowd. Diller also designed and produced the “Mile-Long Opera” on the High Line in 2018, a production that stretched the length of the elevated park.
“We’ve long been thinking about how you could push theatre beyond the stage,” she says. “This allowed the audience to take the piece at their own pace as they walked along encountering performers.”
There are other ways of keeping theatre going outside the auditorium. The ENO is experimenting with drive-in opera at the Alexandra Palace in north London. Histrionic Productions’ version of 1984 and The Guild of Misrule and Immersive Everywhere’s The Great Gatsby are opening in London as performances in found spaces, with staff in full PPE (itself an eerily theatrical experience).
The more immersive productions pioneered by companies such as Punchdrunk and dreamthinkspeak remain viable, if expensive to mount. And all those department stores and offices that might end up empty could prove tempting as slightly mournful potential venues, with a built-in narrative of economic and human crisis.
“The problem,” says Steve Tompkins, “is that we go to the theatre for proximity, for human contact.” And that proximity, the humanity at the heart of theatre, has become the problem.
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