Pshoulder to shoulder with your neighbor, elbows jostling to position themselves on the armrest, knees pressed against the front seat, your view blocked by a column – the theatrical experience of the West End can be claustrophobic at best. Now that theaters have been given the green light to reopen, with their share of a £ 1.5 billion support fund in the offing, how on earth can these historic sites adapt to a distant post-Covid future socially?
For Cameron Mackintosh, successful music producer and owner of eight historic theaters in London’s West End, this is an impossible prospect. “As long as social distance no longer exists, we cannot even consider reopening,” he said in June, when he announced that all of its sites would remain closed until at least 2021. For an industry that depends on packing people as closely as possible to create an electric atmosphere, social distance is surely its death knell.
Scottish architect John McAslan thinks there could be another way and that theater designers are well placed to take on the challenge. “Architecture seems to have been lost in any type of strategy,” he says. “There has been acceptance of the problem and a lack of imagination to see how it could be done differently.”
McAslan, architect of the famous Roundhouse in Camden, London, worked on the design of a new type of theater seat for a small community hall in his hometown of Dunoon in Argyll, which he said could be a prototype for countless other rooms. The Burgh Hall in Dunoon was the first theater in the region when it opened in 1874, and it could now be the site of the first post-viral theater seat.
“It’s a bit like a lounge chair from the 1930s,” says McAslan. “It is slightly wider than a conventional theater seat and has a double recline, each row being separated by two steps rather than one. The main visible difference is a removable transparent acrylic screen that wraps around the sides and back of each seat, providing a psychological buffer between audience members, if not a full-height cough barrier. “It’s to give a feeling of visual connection, but of physical separation,” says McAslan. “Part of it means that people feel comfortable with being side by side with strangers.”
After falling into disrepair for decades, Burgh Hall has taken on a new life as a center of contemporary art since its renovation in 2017, and has remained active during the lockout, with volunteers running a community kitchen for the city. McAslan sees the new seating plan (which is still awaiting funding) as a pilot project on how other sites could be reconfigured across the UK. He sees the pandemic as an opportunity to improve a range of practical issues that have long afflicted outdated audiences.
“The West End is full of beautiful historic theaters, but they are now completely out of date,” he says. “People are four inches taller than when they were built, so the seats are too small, the lines of sight are terrible and a lot of the seats are limited by columns. The air is bad and the loos and bars are always too small to cope. With the announcement of government funding, the time has come to adapt them to their purpose. “
Gavin Green, co-founder of theater consultancy Charcoalblue, has worked with a number of theaters to brainstorm their reopening strategies. “The situation has changed dramatically in recent weeks,” he says. “At the beginning of June, there was an experiment in Berlin to demolish a theater auditorium at a distance of two meters between the seats, and I think that scared everyone. He looked so rigid and empty. ”
He says that the recent easing of government guidelines to the distance of one meter could be a game-changer. “This increases the potential capacity of a theater from around 33% to over 67%, which is starting to seem possible. It’s still not enough for high-end commercial shows to pile up, but it is starting to look like a real audience, rather than playing in an empty room. Concretely, this is the difference between the removal of three out of four seats, against one. In most theaters, every second line should no longer be deleted.
Green also worked on plans for an outdoor pop-up deckchair theater, made from an easily removable kit of parts. “The main thing is to keep it simple,” he says. “By the time you go outside, you are talking about huge amounts of money with lighting and rigging, but we need something light on its feet. “
He cites an example from Leeds of the Holbeck Slung Low community theater, which recently presented a family performance in a parking lot in the back of a flatbed truck. Each family had a small blue tent and a pair of chairs, securely tied into a distant grid with festive banners.
“It was not a reopening of our theater,” says Slung Low’s artistic director Alan Lane, explaining that it was a continuation of their work as directors of social services in the region. “Every day, we deliver hot meals to 20 families in our region, feeding 65 children. We saw how they managed the time away from school, the impact of the legislation, the diet of sausages and fries four days a week and the endless tension in the air. So we decided to do something that could help – a date to wait, a change of activity, a moment of respite. “
The scenographer Es Devlin agrees that the time has come to fundamentally rethink the broader role that theater can play and to see how existing theatrical infrastructure could be adapted to better serve a wider audience.
“The West End theater buildings occupy the most central locations in the city, but are only open to the public for about three hours on most days,” she said. “Their architecture still expresses a time when it was socially acceptable for those on low incomes to be routed through their own separate entrance. We asked: could they be changed, in the same way that Victorian and Edwardian homes are so regularly renovated, to give more direct access from the stage to the street? Could the upper level of seats with the worst views be converted into a civic space where a community could meet before and after the show? Could we pierce the walls to create a showcase, where the sets become magnificent works of art seen from the street through the windows of art galleries? “
Devlin has the form of reinventing what theater can be. She is the author of some of the world’s most daring production designs, from a rotating glass box for the Lehman trilogy to a gigantic tongue-shaped slide for Miley Cyrus’ stadium tour, and is already working on what a socially distant arena audience might look like. .
“We tried to find beauty in the new geometry needed by the audience for stadium concerts,” she said, “by superimposing projected linear patterns that both guide the audience to safe viewing spaces and form also a beautiful network when viewed from a camera antenna. She imagines that this aerial view of the audience could be mapped by projection as the backdrop for the stage performance, “so that the audience taking responsibility for their mutual health becomes a visual statement in itself.” In a way, it is a kind of renewal of vows between the audience and the performer – a distancing of the audience as a client or consumer. “
Ray Winkler, director of Stufish entertainment architects, longtime scene designers for the Rolling Stones, U2 and Madonna, is cautious. He believes that post-Covid locations cannot be as good as their weakest link – spectators from surrounding infrastructure use to get there. “The issue is more psychological than physical,” he says. “You could have a perfectly good place, but you still have to travel by public transport, or line up with 5,000 other people, or have massively long entry times. This does not mean that we cannot meet this challenge, but we cannot simply grease a cog at the expense of examining the overall mechanism. “
Steve Tompkins, the co-founder of architects Haworth Tompkins who was named the most influential person in British theater last year, is cautiously optimistic. After completing countless theater projects, from the Royal Court to the Young Vic, the Liverpool Everyman and the Battersea Arts Center, the practice is currently working on a new research and performance building for the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University . The architects worked alongside the Harvard School of Public Health, examining how theaters could reduce the risk of coronavirus before a vaccine arrives.
“This allowed us to use the project as a live research test bed,” says Tompkins, “asking what theaters might have to do during a pandemic – what might not be just this.” ” He says that ventilation by displacement is one of the key principles, so that the fresh air enters from below and is evacuated by the roof (as in the Everyman theater of the practice), rather than letting it drift through the public and spread the virus along with better filtration and slightly higher humidity and temperature. He pointed out the technical interventions planned by the London Palladium, which proposed to introduce infrared cameras at the door of the stage as well as anti-viral fogging machines and a “medical passport” based on the applications for ticket holders.
“Theater creators are incredibly ingenious and designers are incredibly imaginative in making theaters work,” he says. “I don’t feel pessimistic. With the relief of funding, I believe this will spark a wave of new creativity and imagination. “