Theatre: There's a space for us, somewhere

What is the recipe for good theatre design? As the RSC considers a complete rebuild of its Stratford home, David Benedict assembles the essential ingredients for the perfect stage
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The Independent Culture
The rake's progress

This title may be a Stravinsky opera, but the term "rake" describes the slope or tilt of a theatre's seating and/or its stage. As anyone who has peered in vain through the heads of parents at a school play staged on the flat floor of a gymnasium will attest, raked seating which allows you a (supposedly) uninterrupted view is A Good Thing.

Everything depends on the angle. The Barbican's welcome statistic that no seat is more than 65ft from the stage should be offset by the fact that the seats in the uppermost circle are so high above the stage that not only do you get a prime view of which actors are going bald, but anyone suffering from vertigo is likely to faint dead away.

Conversely, if there's too gradual a rake - for example, as at The Mermaid Theatre - those at the back can't see what's going on at the front of the stage. It also tends to mean that the seating stretches so far back that people end up sitting miles away from the stage.

Raked stages are also for the benefit of the audience, not for actors, who almost universally loathe them. Being seen by everyone is just dandy, but trying to stand up straight on a really steep rake is like being strapped into high heels, and about as good for your posture.

Following the acclaimed Richard Hudson/Richard Jones Too Clever By Half at the Old Vic, no late Eighties modish set design was without its perilously raked floor, which did wonders for the directorial concept and the private practices of osteopaths across the land. This was trumped by the deliriously bad Troubadour at the Cambridge Theatre (set in 13th-century Narbonne, natch). This understandably shortlived wonder of the musical world had a perfectly sublime scene in which two people sat on a bed (don't ask) playing a crucial game of chess with an outsize chess set. The rake was so steep that to stop the pieces sliding off they were fixed to the board with less-than-period velcro making the game's smooth and natural progress a little, shall we say, sticky. (It was the least of the show's problems, but it proves a point).

Handsome is as handsome does

Most people's idea of what a theatre looks like is based solely on the Victorian and Edwardian designs: lots of red plush, fancy curtains and loads of gilt and gingerbread. The interior decoration of the Old Vic is like a fantastic wedding cake but it's hard not to be diverted by it all.

Many traditional 19th-century theatres, particularly those built by Frank Matcham, are acoustic marvels but they have their problems. The stage is often too high creating a gulf between the actors and the audience, who have to crane their heads back and get no sense of the depth of the stage. Then there's the proscenium arch. Some directors feel this sets up a divisive "us and them" feeling which mitigates against the all-important sense of contact and immediacy. Many playwrights wrote for proscenium arch theatres, but Shakespeare certainly didn't. The arch came centuries later and many 20th-century theatres have successfully done away with it. But theatres built both before and afterwards have all sorts of advantages (see below).

All the world's a Globe

Leaving aside the debate surrounding its authenticity, this really is designed for its audience. Everyone has a good view of the stage, but it's best to go the whole hog and stand. In most theatres the strongest position to stand is centre-stage towards the back. Not at the Globe. In this theatre, an actor standing towards the front of the stage can play directly to the crowd. He or she can also see everyone, rather than playing to a black sea which is what you see when looking out at the audience under stage lighting.

A sight for sore eyes

The first thing a touring company does upon arriving in a theatre is to check the sightlines from the auditorium. Can the whole of the set and acting area be seen from all the seats? Despite the best intentions of a designer who will have built a set with the touring venues in mind, the answer is almost invariably "No." This necessitates rejigging the actors' moves and sometimes the entire set so that everything can be presented to its best advantage.

Some theatres try to get round this with what they politely term "restricted view seats". Warning: the correct response to this is "How restricted?" If, as in Glyndebourne's superb new auditorium, it means you have to put up with an unobtrusive handrail to stop people hurtling over the balcony, don't worry. However, if it means you get to pay for the pleasure of examining the moulding on a particularly fine pillar, think about another night. Some seats in the beautifully restored, National Trust-owned Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds aren't great in this respect, but on the other hand it has excellent acoustics, and actors love it because the atmosphere is intimate. Happy actors tends to mean good shows.

Little boxes

It must be hell being in the Royal Family. Imagine having to watch everything from the top right hand corner of the auditorium. You wind up with a stiff neck and have a perfect view of nothing but the wings on the opposite side of the stage. The point about boxes - or "ashtrays" as Dame Edna calls them - is that they were designed as places in which to be seen rather than to see from. It's lovely to sit there waving to your friends while seated with your mistress, a magnum of champagne and groaning platters of smoked salmon (or so I'm told) but you are utterly removed from everyone else and, unlike cinema, theatre is a collective activity. Don't believe me? Try sitting through a play with only a handful of other people. It's embarrassing for all concerned. Watching a film in an empty cinema on the other hand is a positive relief: no noisy popcorn eaters or rabid talkers.

Small is beautiful

Ian McKellen - currently belting out An Enemy of the People to 1,500 people a night in Los Angeles - has played in more than a few theatres in his time and has come to the conclusion that small is beautiful. "In a theatre the size of the Olivier or the Barbican you can end up with a design that necessarily gives the audience something to look at but which dwarfs the performer. It's the closeness to the performer that really matters. My taste is for about 400 seats. Whatever the shape, everyone should be able to see the actor in considerable detail without amplification or binoculars. A measurement could perhaps be, can you hear the actor sigh and see him or her breathing?"

The Barbican's studio space, the Pit, was never conceived of as a theatre. It became one only at the last minute, when someone spotted its potential. Despite a recent partial rebuild, the very low ceiling of the studio makes it claustrophobic rather than intimate. (And in terms of discomfort, it's up there with The Bush).

The National's versatile Cottesloe studio theatre is much better, but that has problems with the audiences in the side and upper galleries that are cut off from the body of the theatre; they often find themselves sitting behind or above the actors. The acres of dead acoustic space to the back and sides mean that actors have to project as much as in the Olivier, which seats three times as many people.

The problem with the Lyttelton, the National's third venue, is that although the sightlines are good with the seating no wider than the stage, actors feel as if they're playing two distinct audiences. Laughs in the circle come later than those in the stalls.

Reality check

If all theatres seated no more than about 400 people in close relation to the actors, everyone would be happy? Er, no. Small spaces are useless for spectacle. Who wants to see Phantom without Maria Bjornson's sets with the famous chandelier crashing down over the auditorium?

It's a question of economics. Theatre is labour-intensive, and costs are high. Unless the Government changes its thinking on arts subsidy (and pigs will doubtless develop an air force before this happens), theatre managers will want large size auditoria in order to make money on ticket sales (17.5 per cent of which goes straight back to the treasury in VAT).

Commentators much given to moaning about Covent Garden's prices smugly point to the Met in New York. "Look," they say, "it's much cheaper and it receives no public subsidy." Yes, and it just so happens that it has double the seating capacity.

Anti-subsidy forces cite the Donmar and the Almeida as small theatres doing excellent work on little public money. True, but they do it on the backs of people who get paid just pounds 250 a week. That's about pounds 41 per day, ie pounds 5 an hour. Without wishing to be unkind, that's fine for millionaires like Kevin Spacey but tough on an average Equity member who may then be out of work for the next few months.

A perfect relationship

The Young Vic is loved by many. The audience - 350- 500 - is comfortably wrapped around the stage yet the "in the round" configuration means that only certain productions fit there. In many ways, though, it's close to what Peter Brook famously described as "the empty space", the artistically ideal set-up in which a company doesn't have to fight an over-plush auditorium with no leg-room in order to create work for an audience in optimum circumstances.

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