Articles by Stephen JosephNewcastle-under-Lyme Civic Theatre
Adaptable Theatres, February 1962
I feel that there are a number of reasons why I should not be here. Firstly, the project I am going to describe to you is extremely small. The theatre will seat about 400 people. It will belong to a small borough of 57 thousand people. Such a project cannot have much general significance. Secondly, it is not an adaptable theatre. However, the building will include two auditoriums, each able to serve a number of different purposes. It is thus, in a very small way, a theatre complex, and this is its main interest at this conference. A third reason for my discomfort is that the main volume is to be a theatre in the round, and this form of theatre has aroused widespread, and often vicious, opposition in this country. There are only two professional companies using theatre in the round here; the traveling Studio Theatre Company and Clement Scott Gilbert’s Pembroke Theatre, which is a temporary adaptation of an old hall. The long history of the arena stage and its contribution to our theatre tradition are not generally known. Famous actors, authors, producers, critics and designers have opposed the idea - and the fact. If, in face of this attack, anyone defends theatre in the round he is likely to be thought eccentric, ignorant and, even, dangerous; he is then tempted to fight back and shoot ink-pellets at authority. I shall try to resist this temptation.
Further, we are, in this country, so used to a monopoly of one form of theatre, that if someone talks about any other form, many people assume that this new form is being proposed as an alternative monopoly.
I have only to mention the idea of building a theatre in the round for an immediate voice to demand, ‘What is wrong with the proscenium arch?’ to which I shall reply - ‘Nothing, perhaps, except its monopoly. We want all sorts of theatres. Theatre should be a rich diet of good things. Let us, in this middle of the twentieth century, have amongst other exciting things, at least one theatre in the round, pure and simple. Please!’
For this project, there are two clients. One of them, the Borough Council of Newcastle~under-Lyme, will pay the largest share of the building costs and will obtain a civic theatre, providing the community with a professional company and a regular programme of plays. The other organisation, the Studio Theatre company, will contribute towards the cost of the project by raising sums from public and private funds, it will provide the director and artists who will be the main users of the theatre, and it is responsible for the brief initially given to the architect.
The project arose in the following way. The Studio Theatre company was formed in 1955 and opened, under my direction, at the Library Theatre in Scarborough, the first fully professional theatre in the round to be seen in this country in modern times.
There is no permanent theatre at the Library, and the arrangements were set up only for the summer holiday season. The company has returned each year to Scarborough, and is playing there now. Rostrum units were devised so that the theatre could be set up in all sorts of halls. These were paid for by the Pilgrim Trust. The company has been given grants by the Arts Council, the Gulbenkian Foundation and other trusts and organisations for the purpose of visiting theatreless towns all over the country. The company has its own vehicles, and makes use of voluntary help for setting up. In a suitable hall it takes about two hours to set up a theatre seating 300 people. Technical facilities, such as lighting, have necessarily been limited. But during the last six years the company has begun to experience some of the exciting possibilities of this form of presentation. In particular we have felt the great strength of the emotional give and take between actors and audience. There is a special excitement generated by their proximity, by the all-embracing effect of an audience that completely surrounds the actors, and by the emphasis placed on the human material in the theatre resulting from the absence of what is usually called scenery. The company has put on many new plays and at present has three resident playwrights, two of whom have written twelve plays for the company. These two playwrights are also actors, and I have begun to realise how much the whole phenomenon of theatre depends on a passionate relationship between actors and audience. I suspect this is so in any playhouse, but many of us allow the trimmings of theatre to destroy its fundamental characteristics and thus to rob it of vitality. Theatre in the round gives one a simple and encouraging opportunity to rediscover certain theatrical values, and, with a few exceptions, most young actors and audiences in all parts of the country enjoy the performances tremendously. Naturally the desire to build a properly equipped, permanent theatre in the round has arisen from these experiences. I have made several visits to the United States to see some of the many arena theatres that exist there, and have studied plans from other parts of the world, as well as historical antecedents, particularly the medieval theatre in the round that flourished for hundreds of years in every part of this country. Against this rich background many schemes for a modern playhouse in the form of a theatre in the round have been devised by us. And I should like to see several of them built - but there is not yet one single theatre in the round, built as such, in this country.
It was during our visit with the traveling theatre to Newcastle-under-Lyme that we learned of the lively interest in a possible civic theatre there. For the past 25 years there have been plans to establish a professional theatre. Nothing had been built so far for two main reasons. Firstly, the cost of building a new theatre had been estimated at at least £250,000 - a large sum, by English standards, for a town of so small a population. Secondly, it had been estimated that to run such a theatre at an economical rate it should accommodate at least 600 people, and probably nearer 1,000; but there was little sign of an audience of that size in the area. However, the demand if small was persistent, and the visit of the Studio Theatre company sparked off the present project.
The architect, Stephen Garrett, MA, ARIBA, was asked to design a theatre in the round to seat about 400 people. A second hall was to be designed for functions that require an end stage. The building should be an attractive and busy social centre. The architect was told to work to a budget of £60,000 This is a fifth of the price that one might expect to pay for an orthodox theatre. The site chosen is a small public park, called the Brampton. It is a few minutes walk from the centre of the town, but there is ample space for car parking. The theatre would stand between two existing houses, one of which serves as a museum and the other as an Arts Centre where meeting facilities are provided for local groups devoted to leisure activities. A development scheme for the park had already envisaged the construction of a children’s boating pool, which would lie on the south side of the theatre.
The architect has conceived the building in three related volumes. Firstly the theatre in the round itself, circular in plan and standing as a squat cylinder on the site. Secondly, a rectangular block to take the second hall and the main audience facilities. Thirdly, a connecting wing that would contain dressing rooms and other back-stage accommodation. Approaching from the road, these low-lying shapes proclaim something unusual, and manifest something of their function. The elevation is simple and straight-forward.
The central acting area is just above ground level, with gently sloping access to back-stage areas at ground level. The auditorium is steeply sloped in seven stages and an access level, or balcony, surrounds the whole, and is cantilevered beyond the main structure. An overall lighting grid will be fixed below the domed roof. The foyer gives onto a generous stairway. This is the way up to the theatre. The second hall is made up of three areas; a raised stage, with access to the dressing rooms, a small auditorium which can be used as a rehearsal room or lecture room, and a refreshment space, served by an adjacent kitchen.
Glass doors open onto a terrace overlooking the boating pool. The rehearsal room and refreshment space can be joined by opening folding doors, giving a larger hall or auditorium for the end-stage. This is obviously a very modest hall and might seat 200 people: it is not intended to accommodate touring companies. It is, perhaps, worth noting that there is a fully equipped proscenium arch theatre in Hanley, three miles away, where touring companies, opera and ballet included, perform from time to time.
The local amateur companies can thus stage their Gilbert and Sullivan - or Merry Widows. There is also a fine little theatre with a well equipped proscenium stage at the Mitchell Memorial Hall. However, there is a great deal of amateur activity in North Staffordshire, and many companies will want to use both the theatre in the round and the second hall with its end stage. The latter will also be available for lectures, small concerts, meetings of various sorts, and as a dance hall and banqueting room. Further, by making use of the small hall as a rehearsal room during the day, the company will leave the theatre in the round available whenever it is preferred for such functions. These activities, together with the eating and the drinking, should be, of course, an essential part of a civic theatre.
As members of the audience come upstairs, a bar and exhibition space are on their right - and to the left is the entrance to the theatre, across a bridge.
A balcony goes all round the auditorium, and from this, stairs lead down, giving access to the rows of seats. Emergency exits are provided. A small section of the balcony is taken up by the control room which will house the dimmer and distribution boards and sound equipment. The three main actors’ entrances are located under the short access ways.
The acting area itself is a circle of 24 foot diameter.
No arrangements have been made for traps, nor for wing space and entrances that might allow of scenic boat trucks. A revolving stage has obvious attractions but has been omitted. The budget does not cover such things. We have not yet designed the lighting system, but we do know that we shall want to paint with light, suggesting atmosphere and space with it.
I have already told you that I feel, for a number of reasons, that I should not be here. I must explain further - these plans are in the process of being modified. The borough council has asked for the second hall to be enlarged to accommodate 600 people so that it can replace the present Municipal Hall.
It has agreed to an enlarged contribution of £99,000 to pay for this. But confusion now arises. The enlarged hall will not be suitable for nor available as refreshment space or rehearsal room. Further, some members of the council and of the public assume that the second hall can be built as a fully equipped proscenium theatre, and one that can also be used as a dance hall with a flat floor. I have pointed out that these demands alone would cost more than the £250,000 already rejected as a budget figure. The confusion arises out of ignorance. It is common in this country to assume that any big space with a large number of seats is a proper theatre, provided they all face a hole in the wall got up to look like a proscenium arch. Sight lines matter little, back-stage equipment and working space even less.
You may know that the Belgrade Theatre at Coventry, the only theatre in this country built out of public funds, our only true civic theatre, has inadequate back-stage space, and a grid too low for proper functioning. The Royal Shakespeare company performs at Stratford-upon-Avon in a theatre whose wing-space is insufficient for the machinery installed; besides, it would be difficult to concoct a playhouse less suitable for the presentation of Shakespeare’s plays. Our newest theatre in London, the Royalty, built by the millionaire Charles Clore, during its six months’ life became the laughing stock of the theatre profession and its inadequacies have already turned it into a cinema. Civic authorities and millionaires alike seem easily satisfied with the appearance of a theatre, without regard to its ability to function.
To make a theatre that really works there is never enough money.
There is one exception to this sorry situation - the Mermaid Theatre. This entirely delightful and modest little building is the responsibility of one man - Bernard Miles. It would be embarrassing to describe the sacrifices he has made in order to achieve his goal.
It is a unique and tiny bright spot among our theatres, which are commonly botched and bungled on grounds of economy.
You may wonder why we so seldom erect theatres and, when we do, why we build them so badly. It is not always the architect’s fault. The ignorance that I have already referred to, of what makes a theatre work, is a good deal responsible. You must remember that we do not have a tradition of theatre-going and theatre-building such as there is in Germany and so many countries in Europe. We do not have a flair for the aesthetic as in France, or the brilliant as in Italy, or the beautiful and practical as India and the Far East. We do not even take our theatre seriously and study it as they do in America where there are over a hundred university drama departments; while here, where we pride ourselves on our university education, there is only one. This is the root of our ignorance. Further, we are a conservative nation and will spoil any new idea for the sake of a compromise and a good deal of talk. The city councillors of Nottingham faced with a brilliant design for a civic theatre, planned by Peter Moro, have turned the project into a political issue so absurd that even the most expert writer of farce could not have predicted the twists and turns of the ridiculous story. The corporation of Leicester has deliberated on the idea of a civic theatre for half a dozen years.
It boasts of being one of the richest cities in the world, and has voted £250,000 towards a civic theatre, has consulted any expert who is willing to give his services without a fee, and has built nothing. The sum is enough to build a front better than that at Coventry, but not enough to put the guts of a real theatre behind it. Etcetera, I’m sorry to say, etcetera...
The Newcastle-under-Lyme project is still under discussion and I don’t know what the outcome will be.
But, finally, the whole project is imperilled by an unexpected set-back. You will be aware that local authorities in this country are allowed to spend up to 6d per head out of local rates on the theatre. Not one of them does so. The average expenditure is less than a farthing. The Government, which stated earlier this year that it cannot afford to build a national theatre, has announced that instead it will help the provincial theatre. Accordingly, when the Borough Council of Newcastle-under-Lyme applied to the Minister of Housing and Local Government for permission to raise capital by loan in order to build this civic theatre, permission was refused; application may be made again in two years time. This is absolute idiocy. It has nothing to do with the plans, which have not been inspected - that is the job of another Government Department - but it is, I suppose, part of the Government’s fiscal policy. As far as drama is concerned, this policy appears to be one of broken promises, meanness and deliberate destruction of what is vital in our theatre. This, finally, renders me speechless.
Please do not reproduce without permission. Transcribed by Simon Murgatroyd.