If you build it they will come

Tempting though it was to write another blog post about women’s attitudes to their own looks/self-esteem/each-other in the wake of Samantha Brick’s unintentionally hilarious article in the Daily Mail today, I am instead writing on the rather drier topic of theatre spaces/buildings.

Two things prompt this post: the latest round of Arts Council Capital Funding announcements and my on-going work on Julius Caesar.

Julius Caesar has been chosen to be part of the RSC Open Stages Showcase at Questors theatre in Ealing on 13th April.  This isn’t just a straight ‘transfer’ as we have been asked to do a 1 hr version and also we can’t get everyone in the cast there on the night.  Some cuts have been made, some roles swapped and some adaptations have been made to lights/sound to fit the new format.

I planned to have one rehearsal (on a day/evening when I could get as many people together as possible) to refresh everyone’s memory and work in anyone with a new role.  There will have been a two month gap between our original opening night (15th Feb) and the performance date (13th April) so I tried to time this close enough to the 13th to be meaningful.  The rehearsal happened last week.  It wasn’t too bad.  The main concern for both me and the cast was not – as it happened – remembering the lines and the action, but how this was going to work in a completely new venue.  When we first agreed to the showcase we weren’t sure whether we would get a chance to rehearse there.  In fact we do get that opportunity a couple of days before our performance.

Just in case, I went to see a show at the venue, made some notes, shot a little bit of video in the interval to show the cast and crew and started thinking about how we could make our production fit.  I had thought, naively, back in November (when I was at Questors for the RSC Open Stages workshops), ‘oh that’s good, our space is a thrust stage with seats round three sides, their space is a thrust stage with seats round three sides, they have seats that go to the floor and stairs up to them, we have seats that go to the floor and stairs up to them, transferring here will be simple’.  But… We have 3 staircases, (one centre front, one centre left, one centre right).  We have two voms*, (one front left, one front right).  I used all of these things.  Sitting watching the play at Questors I realised that they have one vom at the front, their left/right voms are right at the back and they have four staircases – none of them central.  I also discovered that playing area was now a raised platform and there was no back wall.

I worked out a plan and at the rehearsal used a lot of masking tape to mark up the new layout, and label things ‘stairs’ ‘vom’ ‘back’ ‘front’.  The cast who made it to the rehearsal, mostly got it.  I’m a bit worried about those who didn’t and who can’t make the rehearsal next week in the space but… I’m more worried that Julius Caesar has had a knee operation and is on two crutches – the new space has a lot more steps!

So what does this have to do with Arts Council Capital Funding?

Simply this.  The West End is still dominated by traditional, mostly pre-war Proscenium Arch Theatres – this affects the kind of theatre that can be shown in the West End.  If you are working in the round or partially in the round, if you are working to break down barriers between audience and play, using devices such as actors mingling with the audience then it is very difficult to find a West End space that can accommodate this (without a very expensive refit).   Now you may say that the West End is not the be all and end all of theatre – and of course you would be right, it is however a major financial market for theatre and the place where money can still be made for successful plays.  The types of play that start in the West End and go on tour – essentially commercially angled popular drama and musicals – will often find that the largest venues regionally are also Victorian/Edwardian proscenium arch theatres.

And the thing about a Proscenium Arch is, it’s always in the same place.  The front is the front, there will be wings at the side, you will have space to put your set at the back and can choose where to put your doors/exits/entrances pretty much in the same relationship to where you had them in your original theatre.  The route to the dressing room might be different, the trapdoor (if you are using one) might be in a different place, there might be more/less space on the stage and more/less flying space above.  But for the actors, most of the orientation will be the same, they will have blocked their moves to suit the proscenium arch stage and the set that sits on it.  This clearly has many benefits if you are touring a production out of the West End, or hoping to transfer your production into the West End – both ways of making some extra money and hopefully breaking even!

There are regional venues, and many (if not most) fringe spaces that don’t fit this model.  Many modern arts centres will have both a Prosc Arch space and a more flexible space (usually a smaller ‘studio’ space).  However there is no standard layout for these and therefore moving between these spaces – even if they appear to be similar – will present greater challenges – especially for any production that has significant set or effects invovled – than working in a Prosc Arch space.  This means that many of these productions don’t move, don’t tour, never get to the West End, and often then (thanks to a fairly London-centric value system) don’t get the acclaim they deserve (or the money).

So – my point? Whilst I have no problem with the Arts Council allocating the funds it sees fit to those existing theatres in the Capital that need some ‘work’ done, I do think that someone, somewhere should be looking to see if we can’t find a way of creating a space in the West End that would allow in-the-round, barrier-breaking performances to reach a wider audience – this would benefit regional producing theatres as much as it would benefit the West End.  It is interesting that currently the solution to the RSC having a London home is the same as for their US productions – which is to build a flat-pack version of their Stratford home on some vacant plot – rather than adapt to the architecture available.  If the RSC think a flat pack home is a viable option – why can’t we build one that everyone can use?

If we don’t take some steps to change the architecture of the main arbiter of theatre round the world (the West End) then the mainstream of productions will always have a foot in the past and we won’t move fully into the 21st Century for a long while to come, which would be a shame as I believe (see earlier posts) that theatre can make a big difference to our society and our world view.


*A vom is an entrance/exit that goes through the audience (usually partially under the seating area) from the stage level  – sometimes these are the same as the entrances/exits used by the audience, sometimes not.  The name Vom comes from vomitorium and was used by the Romans – I don’t think I need to spell out the Latin root – but the idea is that the Vom ‘spews forth’ the audience at the end of a show.  More here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vomitorium

And whilst I’m at it, if you want more info on Proscenium Arch theatres here you go (thanks Wikipedia!) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proscenium

This entry was posted in acting, directing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to If you build it they will come

  1. amy says:

    did you see what 360 theatre productions did with Peter Pan? Truly one of the most pioneering and outstanding theatre performances I have ever seen. They built a circus tent next to the 02 arena a couple of years ago to enable them to perform their very exclusive “theatre in the round”. The performers interacted with the space at both ground level and air level. Most of the play was acted on the stage but each character was attached to a harness so that when the flying the scenes occurred they were raised to the top of the tent, above eye level, where they performed in front of a fabulous CGI projection which spanned the entire top half of the tent so every audience member could see!

    It did very well for itself and went to tour in America but I think sadly the group are now without funding as they don’t seem to have updated their website since 2010!
    You can watch demonstrations of it here:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s