February 2017

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Lessons from the Study of Historic Theater Architecture

by Franklin J. Hildy

Blueprints Winter 2006-07
Volume XXV, No. 1

Sketch of the interior of the Swan theater, by Arendt van Buchell, ca. 1596-97, after an original drawing by Johannes de Witt. The Swan was a forerunner of the Globe, which most likely had similiar stage design.
Courtesy of the University Library, Utrecht.
Why is it that some theater spaces are able to bring out the very best from even the most pedestrian of productions, while others can suck the life out of the most spirited of performances? This is a question that has intrigued me since I was a graduate student, and while I cannot claim to have found the definitive answers, my research has led to some interesting concepts that might be worthy of consideration.

Given that I am a professional theater historian who occasionally works as a theater consultant, it should not be surprising that these concepts are based on historic research. For over 20 years I have been examining theater buildings, especially historic theater buildings, from Taiwan to Ireland and from Sweden to Malta. I’ve combed over Minoan “theatrical areas” on Crete, Greek theaters in Turkey, Roman theaters in Israel and Jordan, 16th-century theaters in Italy and Japan, 17th-century theaters in Spain and Germany, 18th-century theaters all over Europe, and 19th- and 20th-century theaters just about everywhere. My original concern in examining these buildings was to try to understand the nature of the much discussed “actor/audience relationship” these theaters created. But I quickly came to realize that this was only a small component of a more important question, “How does theater architecture construct audiences?” That is, what is the relationship the architecture allowed the audience to have with itself, or perhaps more precisely, how does the theater architecture influence the relationship that the various components of that social grouping we call “an audience” have with each other, as well as with the performers they have assembled to watch? Good theater spaces facilitate the successful interchange of energy between the actors and the audience, but they also facilitate the generation of energy within the audience itself. In my early work as a theater consultant, I gained a good deal of practical experience in understanding some of the dynamics of this interchange of energy. But I soon realized that to attempt any reasonable speculation about what made a successful theater, I needed to explore successful theaters of the past.

There are numerous lessons to be learned from the study of historic theater buildings. I like to refer to this work as “applied theater history” because of its implications for modern theater. Among those lessons that seem most relevant for this article are three maxims I have developed for architects who may be involved in the construction of theater spaces.

Maxim One: There is no place for dead space in the live theater. Wherever one looks in a historic theater auditorium there are signs of life or the potential for life. Within each audience member’s range of vision while watching a play, there are other audience members to look at. In places where no audience can be conveniently located there are fake boxes that suggest the possibility that other audience members could appear there. Even doors, like those found at the end of every aisle in Wagner’s famous Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Germany, suggest the potential for life to arrive at any moment. In locations where the architecture does not allow for such features, there are statues, paintings, decorative motifs of plants, or some other signs of life, and this exists virtually everywhere that might catch a playgoer’s eye.

Following World War II, however, economics, combined with the proliferation of cinemas, inspired some theater practitioners to ask that the modernist aesthetic of neutral space be applied to theater architecture. This, it was argued, would put all the audience’s focus onto the stage. There were numerous very articulate justifications for this approach, but ultimately it worked against the social nature of live theater. Live theater’s social nature turns out to be one of its most essential characteristics.

Maxim Two: Black is not a color that should ever be found in the audience space of a theater. The same modernist aesthetic that called for the neutralizing of space in theaters eventually argued for a theater space that would be an “empty canvas” for the creation of theater art. But stage lighting had achieved such prominence that this empty canvas could not be white, as it is for the painterly arts, so black was selected.

By the late 1960s “black box theaters” were being championed as the ultimate creative space. But black is not a neutral color and this concept led not to increased creativity but to a very limiting “black box mode” of playwriting, directing, and acting. Theaters must have the ability to become psychologically “warm “or “cool” spaces depending on the drama being presented. You never see black in the original color scheme of a historic theater because black can never be a warm color. You should never see black in the spaces occupied by an audience today.

Maxim Three: The space occupied by an audience during performance is known as “the house” to theater people—there is a reason for that! Admittedly this is a less tangible lesson and one I have yet to fully understand. But there is something about successful theater spaces that makes each member of the audience feel like they belong there, no matter how opulent or Spartan the interior decoration scheme might be and no matter how physically comfortable or uncomfortable the audience seating might be. And this is true no matter what the size or shape this audience space might take, or what relationship to the performers it might establish.

How this feeling is conveyed to an audience is one of the greater mysteries of successful theater architecture. But labeling this space merely as the “auditorium” on an architectural plan may well prevent an architect from giving the proper amount of thought to that mystery.

Globe Exterior
Exterior of Shakespeare's Globe, a replica of the original Globe built in London and finished in 1997.
Photo by Franklin J. Hildy.
As with all historic research, there are limitations to the kind of exploration I do into historic theaters. Historic theaters which have remained intact have too often done so because they were not successful and were quickly abandoned but for some reason were not taken down. Successful theater buildings were often destroyed by fire and rebuilt in a new form. Those that did not burn have been continually redecorated and modernized so that a great deal has to be done in order to re-envision them as they once were. And some of the most successful theater architecture no longer exists in even a single example. The open-air theaters built in London between 1567 and 1623, for example, were part of a remarkable golden age of English theater, yet not a single one of those unique structures survived the turbulent middle years of the 17th century. To study these theaters we have to reconstruct them, or perhaps a better term might be “recreate” them. This is what we did for the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London in 1997, a project I have worked on since 1984 and am still working on 22 years later. (It is also what was done for Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Theatre in Staunton, Virginia, home of the American Shakespeare Center and what will soon be done for the replica of an 18th-century theater in Colonial Williamsburg.)

It is very rare to be able to study a historic theater “in performance,” that is, while a play is going on within it. On those occasions when performances are done in a historic theater building, however, it is remarkable how even a modern audience—one which cannot see with the same eyes as the audience for which the theater was originally built—still experiences the energy interchange that is such an essential characteristic of a successful theater building. Perhaps this is why so many theaters have been so painstakingly restored over the years and why there are so many attempts now to recover lost theaters, especially in the United States.

Dennis Kennedy, in Looking at Shakespeare, has pointed out that theatrical productions are “manufactured for a highly specific geographical and sociopolitical audience” and over time “they will lose their significant connection to the culture they invoke” and therefore must be reinterpreted. The same can be said of theater buildings, and indeed such observations are often used to underscore the futility of projects like the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe in London. We cannot be Elizabeths, they argue, so how can we appreciate Shakespearean staging practices? But what are the parameters of those reinterpretations Kennedy says we must do? If the past has no relevance to the present we should be writing new plays, not reinterpreting old ones, we should be building new theaters,not restoring or recreating old ones. But if there is something in these old plays or these old buildin that is worth conveying to those living in the present, we must translate that something into terms a contemporary audience will understand. And surely we want the translators who are undertaking this task to be competent in both the contemporary language and the language of the source. The examination of existing historic theaters (or the recreation of lost ones) and their use for the exploration of original staging practices used for the great works of dramatic literature, make us better translators. It forces us to learn the source language in a systematic and disciplined way—and in minute detail. It requires that we recognize that learning a language is not just a matter of knowing the words, it is also a matter of learning the grammar and syntax, and in theater, learning the ways in which space gives meaning to text. It may never be possible for us to become fluent in the theatrical language of a bygone era—and who could tell us if we were?—but this does not mean we cannot develop a good working knowledge of the theatrical language of a period like that of the age of Shakespeare.

A production of Measure for Measure in the "Fortune Fit-up," a temporary stage erected at the Royalty Theatre in London in 1893 in an effort to re-create the character of Elizabethan theatres.
Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum Picture Library, London.
If we look at just one major example we can see how the study of the past might inform both architectural and performance decisions in our thinking about new theaters. Since Shakespeare’s day it had been the practice to costume plays in modern stage dress, generally a heightened form of what audience members might see on the streets around them. From the Restoration onward in England, it was also the practice to stage these plays using stock perspective scenery. But in 1773, the great London actor-manager Charles Macklin costumed the main characters in his production of Macbeth in dress that was intended to illustrate the period of the story. This was quite a departure from standard practice and it was duplicated only sporadically. In 1824, however, the famous actor-manager Charles Kemble took the next step by staging King John in full period costume with full period sets. But it was not until the actor William Charles Macready took over the management of Covent Garden in 1837 that “historic costumes” and historic sets became the vogue for Shakespearean productions. This was known as “pictorial illustration,” sometimes referred to as “antiquarianism.” Only a few companies could afford to fully follow this fashion but it gradually became a standard to which most companies aspired.

When it came to the staging of Shakespeare, this antiquarianism arrived just in time. In spite of the numerous changes in fashion, modern dress retained the ornamentation, color, flow, and stateliness that, if it was not a perfect match for the splendor of Shakespeare’s language, could at least hold its own against it. But as the industrial age took hold, clothing, especially men’s clothing, became increasingly stark with hard edges, decreasing amounts of detail,and less and less color. Actors using modern dress in the 1780s could just manage to look as if they should be speaking the elevated language of Shakespeare; by 1830 they would have only managed to look foolish trying to do so had antiquarianism not come to the rescue in providing the spectacle of historic costume.

Almost as soon as the “antiquarian” approach to the staging of Shakespearian plays became popular, however, there were those who rebelled against it. Just as the Pre-Raphaelites in painting had set themselves in opposition to the materialist art of the Industrial Revolution, there were those in the theater who set themselves in opposition to pictorial illustration. Some opposed pictorial illustration because they could not afford it. Others opposed it because the logic of using authentic versions of the texts suggested the use of authentic staging practices as well. For them the historic accuracy they wanted to see in performance needed to come from the period in which the play text was written, not the period in which the play’s story was set. While the Pre-Raphaelites idealized what they saw as the purer vision of Gothic and early Renaissance art, those who rebelled against pictorial illustration in theater saw this same purity in the performance styles that had existed in Europe prior to the advent of the proscenium arch stage. This movement, known as the Elizabethan Revival, brought with it period costumes that were once again in tune with the language of Shakespeare’s plays and the thrust stage, which was in tune with the kind of staging that had made Shakespeare’s plays so powerful in the theater. Later generations would retain the thrust stage, but once “modern dress” for Shakespeare’s plays was rediscovered in the 1920s, would lose the understanding that there is a relationship between the style of language and the style of dress in any given age in any given culture.

The Elizabethan revival and the recreation of Elizabethan theaters it inspired have preserved essential parts of our cultural history and allowed theater artists to influence the present by taking a careful look at the past. The quest to understand Elizabethan staging practices has helped us to tell compelling stories by moving their action always forward, has revealed the value of putting the actors in the same volume of space with the audience, has offered new insights into what I have identified as the difference between audience participation and the authorization for audiences to respond, and has made us rethink the nature of audience comfort in a theater space. (No one believed, when we were promoting the London Globe project, for example, that 500-700 people would pay to stand at every performance, but they do.) The new generation of recreated Elizabethan spaces will allow us to explore the relationship between language and costume and music in ways that have never been done before. And the search for original staging practices can instill a discipline that could well lead to an entirely new approach to theater in our “anything passes for art” culture.

All this should remind us, when we need such reminders, that theater is about more than text—it is also about actors and buildings and costumes and music and movement styles and a myriad of other details that make up its complete system of signs. And it has taught us that when we are dissatisfied with the status quo, we are not limited to our own resources to begin new approaches; we can look back at what others have learned about how theater can work and benefit from their experience even though we are not the same people as they were. The more detailed and thorough our examinations of the past are, the more of its complexity we can see and the more sophisticated the solutions they can inspire. I cannot agree with those critics who say that it is somehow harmful, misguided, or irrelevant to look at theater history. I suspect there are few things that can be more informative. •

Professor Franklin J. Hildy is director of graduate studies for the Department of Theatre at the University of Maryland and co-author, with Oscar Brockett, of History of the Theatre, the most widely used text in the field. He is a member of the architectural advisory committee for the Trustees of Shakespeare’s Globe in London and convener of the Working Group on Theatre Architecture for the International Federation for Theatre Research. He has published extensively on the historic theatres of Europe.

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