Interview between Gabriel Egan, CAHIERS ELISABETHAINS, and Gavin Green, Design Director of Charcoalblue, London, 20 August 2007
Background Charcoalblue is a theatre consultancy company co-founded by Green in 2004 that has worked on projects for the Young Vic and the National Theatre and now has a substantial contract with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). Charcoalblue was given the task of designing the temporary Courtyard Theatre built in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2005 and is designing the internal reshaping of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST) that is currently underway. Green was interviewed about his specialism within these projects, which is the design of auditorium spaces, and what this has brought to the work on the RST.
GE— In layperson's terms, could you give a sense of the briefs that you received for the work you have done for the Royal Shakespeare Company?
GG— Taking the Courtyard Theatre first, the brief there was to seat 1,000 playgoers as close to the performers as we could get them, to be designed within 5 months, built within 11 months, for a total cost of £5.5M. Essentially, the brief was not about architecture: if the building looked good too, that was all the better, but the crucial aspect was to meet the requirement of giving the company a performance space to use while we developed their main house, the RST. The Courtyard Theatre formed the template for what we went on to design for the RST, and the lessons learnt on the temporary space were applied to the main house work. The key concern here is the proximity of the audience to the actors. In the existing RST, the furthest row of seats is fully 28 metres from the stage. Having its origins in 1930s cinema design, the theatre was from the outset not meant to bring the audience close to what they were looking it. Over the life of the building, the distance from the stage to the furthest seat rose because of recurrent tweaks to the auditorium that added more rows of seating at the back. At that distance, 28 metres, a playgoer cannot hope to see much of the facial expressions of the performers, and it was dissatisfaction with the theatrical experience that could be had under these conditions that was the main driver of the changes we were asked to design. Our primary effort has been to bring as many people as close to the stage as possible. The RSC is now overtly committed to playing Shakespeare on thrust stages—that is their preferred configuration—so our task was to put such a stage into an existing room holding 1,000 playgoers. This has not been attempted before. There are, of course, 1,000 seater amphitheatres with a thrust stage, and there are smaller tiered-room auditoria in the Swan style that have thrust stages, but these latter generally seat no more than 450 spectators. No-one has tried to put a thrust stage into a tiered-room theatre that seats 1,000, so in terms of scale this project is unprecedented.
GE— The first of Stratford's theatres with the configuration you describe—a thrust stage that brings the actors into the auditorium, to be surrounded on three sides by spectators—was the Swan, and at the moment the Courtyard offers essentially the same arrangement on a larger scale. Would it be fair to characterize the new RST as falling directly in a line of descent from these predecessors?
GG— Yes it would. There is a modern tradition of Shakespearian thrust-stage spaces starting with Tyrone Guthrie and others in the early twentieth century, and the Chichester Festival Theatre, the Sheffield Crucible, and the Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon are clearly directly in that line. The Courtyard follows somewhat in that tradition, but it is not trying to replicate the intimacy that the 420-seat Swan generates so well. You cannot simply make the room twice the size and expect to get the same experience, but certainly you can bring the audience around the performers on three sides, and have it be an intense, exciting and dramatic place for theatre.
GE— With the reshaping of the RST interior, how many fewer or greater will be the number of seats in the stalls and in the elevated parts of the auditorium?
GG— Our brief is to have about 1,000 seats in the new RST, compare to around 1400 in the old one. Of those, about 500 are in the "yard", the area immediately around the stage, and the parterre, the part of the stalls underneath the first balcony (the Circle). In the Circle itself there are about 250 seats and in the Gallery a further 250. With this configuration, we have reduced the furthest sightline to about 15 metres (from the previous 28 metres), and more significantly we have managed to bring around 85% of the audience to within 10 metres of the stage. Our hope, then, is that this theatre will greatly enhance the opportunities for the audience to really grasp the subtleties of the actors' performances simply by being able to see small facial movements and to hear the slightest whisper.
GE— I notice that you stress the proximity of the audience to the actors, and the effect this proximity has upon the playgoers' experiences, but not what effect this might have upon the actors themselves.
GG— The desire for closer proximity between actors and audience was indeed written into our brief, and this arose directly from the bad experiences reported by actors and audiences at the old RST. Of course, the fact of bringing such numbers of people closer to the stage has complex effects upon the actor/audience relationship. I would not like to preempt what those effects might be, but in essence we are replacing large banks of seats all facing roughly the same way—a kind of linear configuration deriving from cinema—with an arrangement that is more multi-dimensional. We worked very had trying to obtain the "balance" of the audience that we have distributed around the stage, in relation to the positioning of the aisles, the stage entrances, and the columns within the auditorium that support the structure. We tried to identify "pockets", or discrete clusters, of audience, within which a person might feel part of a small group. When an audience is subdivided in this way, it becomes possible to achieve effects not easily achieved when the audience is an undifferentiated mass sitting in uniform serried rows, as when a laugh starts in one part of the audience and sweeps across it like a wave. Such effects can allow the energy of the performance to be returned back to the actors, so that instead of losing intricate moments in a dead sea of bodies, the individual and group reactions of playgoers can be amplified and transmitted across the auditorium. Of course there is a limit to this, and where there are too many small pockets of audience this effect is eroded. To get this balance right we worked closely with Tom Piper (RSC Associate Designer), Michael Boyd (RSC Artistic Director), and Flip Tanner (RSC Project Co-Ordinator of the RST transformation) on getting those audience densities just right. Our main tools were a series of 1:25 scale models of the proposed auditorium that the RSC model-makers turned into physical objects for the team to work on. This was complemented by three-dimensional computer models to review the design process and sightlines. At the peak of our activity we refined these models at the rate of about one new configuration a week, showing them to the artistic team, the commercial team, and the associate directors of the RSC to bring them all into an active dialogue that shaped the plans.
GE— You referred to the place around the stage as the "yard", which is the term that comes from the open-air amphitheatres such as the Globe, rather than the "pit", which is the term usually invoked for indoor theatres. Do you think of it as the "yard" in that sense?
GG— We do. We did a study tour of Peter Hall's new Rose theatre at Kingston-upon-Thames, and that was quite a pivotal moment in our project. That of course is an indoor theatre too, but there is a strong sense that its "yard" is an unseated area and this felt to us rather more flexible an arrangement than, say, the stalls in the Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon where the seating is fixed. We are seeking a level of flexibility in that "yard" seating area to allow the company to adapt it as they develop their stagecraft in this new theatre, this 1,000 seater thrust stage for which Courtyard has provided something of a template but which is nonetheless very much a new departure for the company. This flexibility extends also to the stage itself—the size is not absolutely fixed—and the routes taken by the "runways" that provide entrances onto the stage from the auditorium. Indeed, there is flexibility too in the arrangements for the lighting and flying systems above the stage. What we are seeking can be characterised as a three-dimensional scenic house, and in the new RST we are able to go much further in the vertical dimension than was possible at the Courtyard, which was constrained by the roof of the rusty box inside which we built the theatre, and by the extreme cost of excavating downwards. At the RST we have much greater freedom to build up and to dig down. Now, of course, in the view of those pioneers such as Guthrie whose ideas are well represented in the Swan, the thrust-stage theatre should be essentially non-scenic. The Swan was deliberately designed without a "get-in" (a means of getting large scenic items on the stage) precisely in order to limit the scenery that could be used, but in the new RST we are adopting a scenic approach but with a radically three-dimensional aspect replacing the straight "flats" of a proscenium-arch theatre.
GE— What would you describe as the essentially immovable parts of the existing building that you were unable to alter? And what problems, if any, did they present?
GG— In theory nothing was strictly immovable, but we were governed of course by the views of English Heritage and the fact that it is a listed building, and we were prevented from changing certain parts of the structure. Even here, though, there was room for manoeuvre and we were able successfully to challenge some of the prohibitions. Certain parts of the existing structure had an emotional significance for us, most obviously of course the 1930s foyer which is really quite beautiful. At least, it is beautiful when stripped back to its original glory by having all the signs and excrescences removed. This elegant room we have retained as a fixed feature. At the opposite end of the building, the fly tower itself became for us a fixed feature as we worked on the design. Indeed, we spent some time debating whether we should keep the proscenium arch wall as a fixed feature. We concluded that we ought to keep it because it had been a fixed feature of the room for 70 years and there are emotional "ghosts" that adhere to such an object. In the event, the proscenium arch wall became a touchstone of our work, a longstanding fixture with which our new theatre would work in a kind of fruitful tension. Thus we consciously linked the new space to the old by setting these fixed points as book-ends within which our design would be sandwiched, and by this means we gave ourselves creative restraints within which to work rather than simply assuming an empty shell.
GE— You mentioned supporting columns in the auditorium. Are these not structurally immovable?
GG— Because of the simplicity of the structure, we have in the Courtyard columns that cannot be moved. In a way the Courtyard is unique in that it was conceived as two quite separate objects built independently of one another. The first object was the rusty box, which was designed simply to get us planning permission without in any way determining what we did inside it. The second object was the auditorium, which is an entirely free-standing structure built within the space provided by the box but structurally independent of it, and for its rigidity we were clear that a beam-and-post design would be simplest solution. We had an inkling though, and experience at the Courtyard bore this out, that the columns needed to hold up the seating levels would themselves provide a visual sense of verticality. The Courtyard is an apse-ended, U-shaped, room and the pairs of columns holding up the seating create a vertical rhythm around the room. Within the new RST we are exploring a faceted auditorium, by which I mean that here again there is a repeated rhythm in the structure around the room, but it is made not so much by the columns as by the faces of the bay fronts. Nonetheless, the columns play a part in reinforcing the vertical rhythm around the space and making the auditorium feel smaller. Also, the columns form perpendicular axes in relation to the horizontal lines of the balconies and so repeat the shape of the proscenium arch, and of course they echo the verticality of the actors on the stage, who are usually standing upright. Structurally, we could have done without the columns at the RST if we had wanted to—the levels of seating could have been supported by cantilevers—but they became for us an important part of the scheme emotionally, for the reasons just stated, so we kept them. (Actually, cantilevering would have had the additional disadvantage of thickening the platforms on which the raised seating is fixed and so the playgoers would have been slightly higher up and thus further from the action.)
GE— Has this redesign allowed you to improve the backstage facilities of the RST, which have hitherto been shared with the Swan? And, related to that consideration, has the acoustic isolation of these two theatres been part of your work?
GG— Very much so. Acoustics are not our speciality here at Charcoalblue but that of the RSC's acoustic designers, Acoustic Dimensions led by Nicholas Edwards, and the team working together in the backstage planning have been able to greatly enhance the acoustic separation of the auditorium from the back-of-house and to create a void between the Swan and the new RST. Thus we hope to have ameliorated the known problems of sound leakage that occur when there are shows on in the RST and the Swan at the same time. Additionally, we have provided a new "get in" facility and a new back-of-house wing on the riverside where all the dressing rooms will be grouped together to provide a sense of community, and where we have been able to give the actors and employees natural light and windows that open for fresh air.
GE— The published impressions of the new RST give an indication of how the stage relates to the stalls. Can you say something about how the theatre experience of those in the elevated seating, the old Circle and Gallery, has figured in your thinking?
GG— To explain our thinking, it is useful to go back to the template provided by the Courtyard. This kind of theatre gives the playgoer a quite different experience when seated in one part of the auditorium compared to the experience had in another part of it. For this reason, I have been returning to plays at the Courtyard and deliberately sitting in different locations to get a sense of these differences and feed them into what we have been doing on the RST. The upshot is that we have set the lower of the two levels at the RST, the Circle, as low as we can get it to produce sightlines that allow one to see as much of the stage as possible despite having to look down upon it instead of across at it, as one does in the stalls. Indeed, at the rear of the stalls one often needs to be looking upwards above the stage, and this is a sightline that I think we did not quite appreciate when we built the Courtyard. We have paid special attention to it at the RST as under the influence of Artistic Director Michael Boyd the RSC's work has become markedly more three-dimensional than hitherto, by which I mean that there are often things happening in the space just over the stage as well as on it, and so a consideration of sightlines has take into account not just the experience of looking at the stage but also the experience of looking above it. This means that we have to strike a delicate balance when lowering the elevated seating so that we do not compromise the ability of those seated below the balconies to look upwards. Part of the solution here has been to give up on the idea of a standard seat shape replicated across the auditorium. Instead, we have 19 different types of seat in this building, each made to a different height or width so that the sightline from that position is individually maximized. This kind of micro-designing is only possible now that we have computer modelling of theatre spaces.
GE— Does computer modelling of the new RST extend as far as acoustics?
GG— The design has been extensively modelled for acoustics, although as I say not by our company. The art of acoustic modelling is in its infancy, and Nicholas Edwards's work on applying this "dark art" to the new RST has been groundbreaking. Once the basic shape of an auditorium is established, the key variables are the sound-reflecting properties of the materials that clad the various exposed surfaces in the room, and as you can imagine there are a lot of different materials to model here. Not least of these are the human bodies sitting in their seats, which absorb and reflect sounds in complex ways. Once Nick had a workable acoustic model of the RST, we were able to experiment in our computer model with moving balcony fronts by small amounts (mere inches) to see what this would do to Nick's model's visual representation of how sound travels around the space. We were able to learn from the acoustic of the Courtyard, which has a considerable void behind the last row of seats—into which void sound is lost—whereas the RST will have vertical, sound-reflective surfaces just beyond the final rows of seats on each side. Likewise with the sound-reflective balcony fronts: in the circle where we do not need to allow spectators to look through them, we can make them solid and exploit their sound-reflecting characteristics to fine-tune the reinforcement provided by internal echoes. On any thrust stage, a potential weakness is than an actor facing away from the centre-line of the auditorium speaking essentially to one half of the auditorium, will be inaudible to the playgoers directly behind her. This can to a large extent be solved by attending to the reflections coming off the wall and surfaces in front of the playgoers that the actor is facing so that this sound is bounced back past the actor to those behind.
GE— The published impressions show what you have called runways that allow actors to enter through the audience, and imply that these will be rather more substantial than was the case in the old RST. Is this right, and what guided your thinking in this respect?
GG— That is quite right, but we are not quite finished in our planning of just where these runways will fall, and indeed they will be part of what is left dynamically adjustable for different shows in the RST. In essence the thrust stage projects like a tongue into the auditorium, and from its furthest corners project these runways. But just what line they follow through the auditorium, and thus how they relate to the columns and how they break up the audience, as well as the practicalities of ensuring they are wide enough for the uses that directors will put them to, all these are fine judgments that we have not yet quite finalized
GE— It is noticeable that the replica Globe theatre almost always now puts walkways and steps into its yard to allow actors to enter through the audience. Do you suppose this impulse to bring actors through the audience—which seems evident also in the runways you have been describing—reveals a dramaturgical limitation of the thrust stage, which otherwise permits entrance only from one end?
GG— Bringing actors on through the audience is such a powerful theatrical tool because it delivers them downstage centre very quickly, much more quickly than if they have to make the walk down from the upstage entrances. The kind of design we are involved in here is characterized by its flexibility. It is not for us to design precisely around the proscenium arch, nor to treat it as necessarily inherently a scenic place: in certain shows that upstage area might be where the auditorium projects itself onto the playing space. Equally, the extreme downstage part of the stage, which you might think is necessarily where the scenic space shades off into the audience space, might be made highly scenic. Aside from the practicalities of delivering actors downstage centre in the shortest possible time, I think entrances from the yard are popular precisely because they remind playgoers that their unconscious zoning of the stage is always provisional, always an effect of the performance and is not built into the architecture. In this regard the RSC is a particularly exciting group to work with, for they do not expect us to design every last detail: they have a long tradition and extensive facilities for the building of large scenic objects and structures. If for a particular show they want a complexly-constructed wall or scenic structure within the proscenium arch, they will just build one.
GE— When drastic alterations to the RST were first mooted about 6 years ago, one of the reasons given for their necessity was changes in the law regarding disabled access to the theatre. Can you give us any sense of how access for the disabled has figured in your work?
GG— We have been very keen to provide, if not quite a universal principle of equal access to all parts of the building—this ideal is very challenging in such a multi-layered building—then at least a practical and logical means of access to every distinct part not only of the front-of-house but also the back-of-house, for of course the legislation rightly mandates not only what the company must provide for its audience but also what it must provide for its employees. We are constrained by working within an historic listed building erected when such considerations scarcely registered upon the wider public consciousness, and the legislation acknowledges the problems that may arise in such a circumstance. In the event, we have provided disabled access within the auditorium to all of the audience levels, and within each level we offer disable users a choice of spectating positions. We are certainly not putting all the disabled playgoers in one spot at the back, rather we have been able to integrate wheelchair-user positions throughout the seating at each level. Similar considerations have shaped our work on the wider building—the public spaces not within the auditorium—and the back-of-house, for performers and other staff as much as for playgoers. In general we have been delighted to be able to exceed the minimum requirements of the relevant legislation.
GE— To continue with matters of access and convenience, a longstanding complaint of women playgoers has been that inadequate toilet facilities generate intolerable queues during intervals. Have you been able to address this problem?
GG— We are governed here by the Technical Standards for Places of Entertainment, known in the profession as the Yellow Guide, and these take into account the fundamental difference between a theatre and most other public buildings, which is that playgoers all need the toilet at the same time. For any given number of building occupants, a theatre needs many more toilets that another building because it has to cope with this peak demand in the interval. Apart from the legislative demands, the RSC has in its Executive Director Vikki Heywood a champion for the complete removal of that longstanding complaint about women's toilets in theatres. We are confident that we have solved this problem for the new RST, although because of the many compromises that were necessary in the design of the Courtyard I do not think we got it entirely right there and I have seen a few queues myself. In our defence, we were presented with the fait accompli that the foyer to the Courtyard had to be the shell of the old Other Place theatre, and we could not greatly add to its facilities.
GE— The road providing access to the three Stratford theatres, Waterside, flooded in the heavy rain of July 2007. Is there any provision in your plans for improving the theatre's resilience to damage from flooding?
GG— In this project we are working on a flood plain, and that was the second time in 10 years that Waterside has been flooded. The project engineers Buro Happold have been working with the Environment Agency on this very complex subject, in particular a flood impact assessment and identifying what is called Flood Compensatory Volume. Flood impact assessment is a statutory requirement of projects such as ours that extend the footprint of an existing building on a flood plain, and the idea of Compensatory Volume is that one sets aside on the site a space that can hold an equal volume of water to that held by the increased area of the footprint. In other words, you specify a place that you intend to allow to flood in preference to the space you are building upon, and in our case this is the site we call The Dell, an informal performance space occupying a natural, amphitheatre-like dip in the land by the river.
GE— Assuming that what gets built is essentially what you have designed—I mean that no unforeseen obstacles emerge during construction—how will you be able to judge the success of your design? Please answer this as informally as you like, because I am thinking of your personal, professional goal and not simply contractual targets.
GG— Within the Courtyard, the RSC has been careful in researching audience feedback, which data have come to us for the purpose of learning as best we can the lessons from that project when doing our design of the new RST. There was a point during the construction of the Courtyard where I went in to view a skeletal framework of the design, and thank God it felt right. By that I mean that as a person—not necessarily an actor or a playgoer, but just as a human body—it felt that the relationships and scale of the individual to the larger structure were correct. There is a special, sensual feeling that one gets when a work of construction somehow fits the human body, and it is derived from some inexpressible and intuitive correctness of proportions. Ultimately I suppose that this feeling, rather than anything you can point to in a contract, is the goal of designers such as myself. In this regard we were most fortunate in having the Courtyard to use a template for what we want to do in the RST, and as a consequence we are fairly confident now that in terms of the physical size and proportional relationships within the design we have got this building essentially right. The proof of our conviction, of course, will be when the excitement, the jaw-dropping moment, that playgoers report as their first response to the Courtyard is also reported as the usual reaction to the new RST. That said, the new RST will feel a little more posh than the Courtyard—it is a much more expensive building—but in its essential feel, and in its necessary adaptability for the purposes of the playing company, it will be much the same experience. To ensure that adaptability, we cannot quite complete the design: we need to leave it somewhat rough around the edges. If jaws drop and gasps are emitted when people walk into the new RST, I will know we have got it right.
GE— Gavin Green, thank you.