Articles by Stephen JosephUp Go The New Theatres
The Guardian, 4 February 1960
In this country the news is more often of old theatres closing than new theatres opening. The reverse is true of the United States. Here, in the first of two articles, Stephen Joseph, Director of Theatre in the Round, reviews recent theatre building in America.
The second article, to be published next week, will discuss the changing pattern of theatre and the creation of new audiences.
In a quick survey, the first fact to note is that new theatres are being built and quickly. Many of these are highly unusual in design, and most of them arise out of initial imaginative labours carried on in broken-down or disused buildings, adapted as theatres.
Many of the new theatres are used by professional groups, but much of the exciting work is the responsibility of amateur or university groups.
At Harvard, a highly mechanised flexible theatre is under construction. With the aid of hydraulic lifts, blocks of seats on wheels, and a movable proscenium arch, the theatre can be used as a conventional playhouse, a three-sided platform stage, or a theatre in the round. The lighting board and backstage equipment have been designed to take advantage of modern engineering. It is a magnificent project and George Izenour, the ventor, is the presiding genius.
In the building, besides the work-shops, dressing-rooms, foyers, and other expected facilities, there is also a small studio theatre. This ls a small, plain, rectangular room, and it is meant to be used for any form of staging which may or may not have been anticipated in the main auditorium.
A few miles from Harvard, for contrast in size, is the small Tufts Arena Theatre. This is a tiny theatre in the round, with an oval acting area, a few rows of seats round it, set in a rectangular room that used to be a gymnasium. The whole theatre has been built of timber, using techniques familiar to any woodworker, giving the feeling of a good home-made object. It has a warm and inviting atmosphere; actors and audiences seem to belong there. A crush-room serves as refreshment space and the floor is tiled to the pattern of the acting area, making an ideal rehearsal room. I saw the set for Rashomon in process of erection, and was fascinated by the use of long vertical lines of bamboo and undergrowth.
This is the sort of theatre in which you could put on all sorts of plays. I fell in love with it.
Not far away, in Boston, the small Charles Street Theatre has a three-sided platform stage. There is a further raised “inner stage.” The actors enter either on to this Inner stage or through the auditorium on to the platform. I saw a beautifully acted production of Moon Of The Misbegotten in which excellent use was made of the stage. The building seems to have started life as a chapel, but was recently used as a club before being converted into a theatre. This form of stage ls reminiscent of the Elizabethan Globe theatre, of which there are many deliberate imitations. On the west coast, at Ashland, there is an annual Shakespeare festival where the plays are presented in the open air on a platform stage designed in the Elizabethan style.
Since 1950 an annual Shakespeare festival has been held at Hofstra College on Long Island. Here John Cranford Adams has been responsible for the model and reconstruction to five-sixth scale of the Globe Theatre. This had dominated theatre work at the college. But the new Hofstra Playhouse boasts of a large stage 107ft. wide. 35ft. deep: it has a flexible proscenium, adjustable from 28ft. to 45ft. in width. There is an apron stage on hydraulic lifts. There are flexible side stages, an electronic ‘fly’ system (designed again by George Izenour) and an electronic lighting console. The auditorium seats 1,134.
It is difficult to separate the products of academic research from the most advanced of modern theatres, so closely are they integrated. This ls the result of an approach to education radically different from our own. It has far-reaching consequences, among them an attitude to theatre in which the barriers between amateur and professional are broken down, the isolation of the scholar from the practical theatre expert has become a rarity, and the historical riches of theatre have become common property. And up go the new theatres.
The impetus towards unusual forms of theatre derives from knowledge of ancient and medieval techniques of presentation; but most of the playhouses now being built are unashamedly modern. The Penthouse Theatre in Washington and the Playhouse in Houston are both theatres in the round, shaped and detailed in modem style, and make excellent playhouses. There are many buildings adapted for theatre in the round, notably the Alley Theatre in Houston and the Arena Theatre in Washington D.C. In each of these theatres the rows of seats round the central acting area are raised to give good sight-lines, and an overhead grid is suspended so that spotlights can shine down on the actors at a reasonable angle, giving good illumination to their faces without spilling into the auditorium. And the form of theatre in the round has also been much used for the presentation of spectacular shows such as musical comedies. The Casa Mariana, in Fort Worth, is a theatre in the round designed to seat an audience of 2,000.
The theatre is housed in one of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes. Its metal work gleams gold and silver in the sunlight, looking, from a distance, like a Venusian dwelling. It is a good example of the application of modem structural techniques to building theatres. Many of the so-called music tents are semi-permanent structures, partly housed under canvas. The rows for seats are excavated informally, a platform stage is constructed with an orchestra pit at one side of it. Entrances are placed radially.
The theatre in the round technique has already proved suitable to dancing and singing as well as to drama. One of the first to become well known was run by Margot Jones in Dallas. It was housed in an old exhibition building which survived as long as her enthusiasm kept it going. She presented exciting plays year after year. But when she died, enthusiasm died and the building was discovered to he inadequate, and then positively unsafe.
The first company merged with another, and now the new venture presents conventional plays on a conventional stage inadequately installed half-way down a cinema, whose balcony thus suffers from upset sight lines and serves as a scene store in default of proper wing space.
However, the enthusiasm that set Margot Jones on her experimental way was shared by many people in Dallas, and in December 1959, a new and extraordinary theatre opened there.
Designed by the eccentric and brilliant architect Frank Lloyd Wright, its chrome-coloured, poured-concrete walls sit asymmetrically on a river bank, solid among slender trees, but with a feeling of growth out of the earth, and belonging to the bank as much as the trees themselves. You go almost right round the building before reaching the entrance, taking in its simple, subtle lines. Inside, the circular motion continues, leading you into an auditorium that is at once inviting, simple, unusual, and thrilling.
There is an immense open stage, 800ft. across. This is divided into three sections; the central section includes a large revolve, and over each of the side stages there is a balcony. There is no proscenium arch, but the ceiling of the auditorium is composed of circles of concrete alternating with spaces for spotlights, all centred on the centre of the revolve. This device enables an unobtrusive tower, over the revolve, to serve as a grid-house into which scenery can be flown.
From on stage the audience seems to be close, and from the auditorium the actors appear to be in the same room with the audience. It is part of Wright‘s skill to make this vast stage so well proportioned that it does not dwarf actors or audience, but seems to be a most natural habitat for them: it is positively inviting. The simple lines and dun surfaces of the architecture are reminiscent of oriental buildings, and it is not difficult to see the influence of the Kabuki theatre on the design of this Civic Theatre Centre. But the main formative influence on the building is undoubtedly the forceful personality of its director, Paul Baker, who worked with Wright on the designs during the building period.
Baker has created a drama department at Baylor University, a denominational college, and an unpromising home for the drama. The university itself has an extraordinary theatre with a more or less conventional end stage and two side stages at right angles to it: the audience sit in revolving seats to get a comfortable view of each stage. There are two studio theatres besides, at Baylor, and Paul Baker is not confined to one form of theatre.
The drama department has achieved a strong play-writing tradition, and much of Baker's approach to the theatre depends on a vision of the play as being something epic in size, local in significance.
A dramatisation of Wolff’s Time and the River occupied dozens of writers and provides parts for dozens more actors, and work for numerous lighting and sound technicians. An adaptation of Hamlet with three eponymous figures is an attempt to make the play have a more immediate impact on a contemporary and local audience. For these plays the huge open stage ls ideal.
It seems to be significant that this particular theatre. with its outstanding characteristics, has grown up in Dallas. This is where it belongs. I do not think it represents any abstract ideal: it ls simply the right theatre in the right place. In the same way, the Tufts Arena Theatre, small and home-spun, has the air of belonging in its surroundings, of belonging to its audience and to its actors; and it has potentialities which match the highly civilised view of theatre embodied in its director, Dr Balsh, a quiet man with a wide knowledge of dramatic literature.
The new theatres of America are unusual and various because there are indeed many ways of presenting a play, each of them with its own advantages, each capable of expressing a director’s view and holding an audience's attention.
In this country, where the news is more often of theatres closing than of new theatres being built, one may quickly suggest that all this bricks and mortar activity has nothing to do with the drama, which is an affair of actors and audiences. It is worth asking if the audiences are there to fill the new theatres: if the standards of acting and production are worthy of the new structures: if there are playwrights and artists associated with the new movement away from the conventional proscenium stage.
Here, we have at least a flourishing West End, a famous Stratford-on-Avon, and no Globe nonsense.
The Americans could be wrong, and, since they are notoriously materialistic, this theatre-building craze can, perhaps, be discounted. But this would be dangerous, insular thinking. There are indeed reasons to believe that the theatre may be entering a golden age in the United States.
Please do not reproduce without permission. Transcribed by Simon Murgatroyd.