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Build Me Up: Architecture in the Theatre

This week has me thinking about architecture (thanks to Jeremy and his insightful post last week).

I spent every summer from 2011-2015 working for an architecture, engineering, and interior design firm. In addition to padding my savings account, the job gave me a real appreciation for how much time, energy, coordination, compromise, and thoughtful design goes into every architectural decision- whether it’s the paint color for a baseboard or the location of a featured stair.

Architecture has always been an indicator of wealth and comfort. In centuries past, the amount of space wasn’t nearly as important as what you put in the space. We see evidence of this in some of the most popular theaters on the West End; stuffy, narrow lobbies are forgiven by gilded decoration and painted ceilings.

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Wyndham’s Theatre lobby, London.

In contrast, modern architecture has seen a movement towards the glorification of open space. The grandest rooms are sleek, simple, and clean, featuring solid upholstery on armchairs without arms. Chandeliers are out, floor-to-ceiling windows are in.

An architect has to compromise between the developer’s budget, the client’s design wishes (however unrealistic), their own creative impulses, predicted community response, and hundreds of mandated codes. When it comes to designing a new theater, how does an architect possibly manage to design a space that keeps up with modern trends, that follows all the necessary guidelines, and that also reflects the theatre’s mission?

A wonderful example is the new Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois (Thomas Connors did a feature on the new theater for American Theatre magazine this past summer- check it out).

Since its inception in 1992, Writers Theatre has always valued the intimacy of a small space. Its original performance space was inside a bookstore. Modern architecture values large, open spaces, but the theatre’s mission demands intimacy:

“We’re not interested in creating a space where the audience is dazzled by technical wizardry,” says founding artistic director Michael Halberstam. “You need to be able to go into a theatre and see a play and, rather than coming out and saying, ‘Wow, those costumes were gorgeous—and that set!’ you should come out of it saying, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ or, ‘I have to call my parents’ or, ‘I just learned something about myself; I need to go for a walk.’”

(quote taken from Thomas Connor’s piece in American Theatre Magazine)

Jeanne Gang was the architect on the Writers Theatre new-build, and she managed to design a space that respects the intimacy inherent in the theatre’s mission and that also fits in with the aesthetic of contemporary architecture.

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Exterior view of the new Writers Theatre. Glencoe, Illinois.

 

Connors’ article got me thinking about how architecture has subconsciously influenced my experience as a theatergoer. I could go on and on about the difference between seeing Shakespeare at London’s prison-like Barbican and seeing Aaron Posner in a CAS classroom, but for the sake of space, I’ll stick with one example.

In 2014, I saw My Fair Lady at the Guthrie in Minneapolis. I was fully aware of the Guthrie’s reputation as a regional theatre, but arriving at the theatre brought on another level of “woah.” First of all, it’s enormous. A gravity-defying bridge juts out from the indigo-plated, modern structure, creating the impression that special things happen in this building.

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The Guthrie Theatre. Minneapolis, Minnesota.

For me, the most striking feature was the larger-than-life portraits of “Great” theatre artists that are pixelated into glass panels. The portraits continue into the lobby area, so as you enter the space, you feel like you are in the presence of Eugene O’Neill, George Bernard Shaw, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Tyrone Guthrie himself. Sure, the artwork establishes the Guthrie as an influential theatre hub, but it’s all very… white.

As I walked into the lobby, the giant old-white-guy portraits drew my attention to how white the audience was, too. Whether or not the designers who remodeled the Guthrie intended to be exclusionary, the portraits say something about who has made “great” theatre in the last century. My experience seeing My Fair Lady didn’t really suffer because (a) I’m white, and (b) I was pretty titillated just to be in the Guthrie in the first place.

When it comes to designing purpose-built theaters for the 21st century, it’s imperative that architects and designers have a deep understanding of what the theatre means for its community. Hats off to Jeanne Gang for doing just that.

“Writers [Theatre] is all about the intimacy between performer and audience,” says Gang. “But they also share an intimacy with the community, and the building reflects that as a kind of public gesture.”

(quote taken from Thomas Connor’s piece in American Theatre Magazine)

 

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