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Design Review: Volume 4, Issue 6 (January-February 1953)

Theatre and Stage Design

page 125

Theatre and Stage Design

(Russell Reid has been connected with the theatre in New Zealand for twenty years, both as an amateur and professional actor and producer. He has also been a London stage director and studied production in England and France. When cornered he will admit to being an ardent propagandist for the theatre in New Zealand.)

hall with a platform on which to We Hear Much these days about the theatre in New Zealand and about a ‘national’ theatre, whatever that may be. There have been various attempts to establish New Zealand theatre companies, professional and commercial organisations as distinct from amateur societies. No doubt there will be many more such attempts, for the theatre has become, despite the absence of such companies, one of the largest, if not the largest, creative community interest in the Dominion. But have we yet, leaving aside such important aspects as artistic ability, knowledge of management and sufficient population—have we yet even theatres in which such companies might play? We have not, and until we have, the day of our own theatre companies taking a full and valuable part in the life of our communities seems to me as far distant as ever. What we need are theatres to suit our peculiar requirements and capacities. What we have, except in rare instances, are buildings of a sort — unsuitable buildings, the blame for which lies with our architects and engineers who designed and built them. These men should have known better.

Having decided who we are throwing bricks at, let us consider why.

The need of such theatres is obvious. Almost everyone agrees with much wise head-nodding whenever the subject arises. Even the daily press has been known to point up the need, provided the information comes from somewhere outside New Zealand. Just recently most of our leading papers carried a five-hundred-word cable message which began, ‘The theatre-going public in New Zealand is increasing, but progress is hampered by the entire lack of suitable buildings.’ This was part of a review of the situation published in a paper under the auspices of UNESCO. The fact that it had been written in Wellington, published in Paris and cabled back from London does not lessen the fact that the need is urgent. There is a hunger for ‘live’ theatre. How great it is, few realise. No one knows for instance, just how many amateur theatre groups there are in New Zealand. There are two national organisations—the N.Z. Drama Council and the older, and larger British Drama League. However, they do not contain all the groups. It may startle you to learn that I can vouch for the existence of at least six to seven hundred such groups. I will also vouch for something else. Ask any of them what is their biggest handicap in the presentation of their plays and nearly every single one of them will answer, ‘Give us a suitable theatre in which to play.’ They are not asking for the moon, either. And whose fault is it that they have not, or at best (unless they are the envy of every other group), have only a perform? In most cases, it is the fault of those who designed or engineered those buildings.

Just what they do have in the way of theatres is to me almost unbelievable in a country that prides itself on its progress. At best, there is a small chain of privately-owned theatres in the main centres which are available at restricted times and usually at very high rentals. Here and there are also municipally owned theatres which unfortunately, in most cases, have been leased to other interests in such a way as to deny the very word ‘municipal’ which usually occurs in their title. These are theatres. At least, they were designed as such. They have a stage, an auditorium and sometimes some other parts. But there, any similarity between them and a true, workable theatre of reasonable standard is often very difficult to find. (I emphasize, I am not asking for a stage director's or theatre manager's dream palace.) Elsewhere we have only halls that have platforms—sometimes. Sometimes too, as a result of community effort, some of these hall have been transformed into something that is just recognisable as something similar to a theatre. It is remarkable just how much time, energy, money, paper, and debating has gone into arguments drama groups have had page 126 with local bodies up and down New Zealand to get something done about the local hall. Little has been achieved.

The reason lies in the inability of most of our architects and designers (certainly those I have met in this connection) to grasp and understand the merest essentials of what is required. True, they have sometimes been misled by local amateurs asking for something they have only read about. By chance, here and there, some architects have been found already interested in the theatre. But more often than not, they rarely realise that whether they are designing a theatre to replace Drury Lane, London, or designing just a stage in the local hall to be used by the local drama group some nights, the choral society other nights and sometimes the local politician, there are fundamental principles involved which go back hundreds of years.

Just recently one such architect engaged in such a task as altering a hall into a small theatre told me he had decided to install a counter-weighted system for hauling scenery up and down, as he put it. ‘Make it really up-to-date,’ he said. Refraining from telling him that such a system was called ‘flying’ scenery, I did manage to break it to him gently that such a system had been designed and used more effectively than in any theatre to-day just about two hundred years ago. He could read about it quite easily and save himself making a couple of errors I could see already in his plan. I mention this to emphasise that there is a whole history of development in the principles and ideas of stage and theatre design, a history that goes back hundreds of years and about which plenty of good books have been written. The language of the theatre, the technical terms used by theatre workers, records much of that history.

In the matter of designing a stage in particular, it seems to me, most of our designers do know the word ‘proscenium’. But that is about as far as they have reached, for the very good reason that it is about as far as their view of the stage has reached. They have too often only seen a stage from a seat in the stalls. They know nothing of borders and skycloths, cycloramas and battens, dips and floats, the grid and the deck. In short, they know nothing of just how scenery is handled, what is required for its handling and why. Yet they calmly design what they are pleased to call a stage. What other people call it is something quite different. When it comes to the auditorium they are sometimes even more at sea than ever. The principles of what is rapidly becoming the science of sight-lines seem to exist in their minds solely as a theory that ‘everyone must have a good view of the stage’. If they have any knowledge at all of the various factors involved it is often based on an insufficient understanding of what the stage is like in some of the theatres that I have mentioned as actually existing in New Zealand. These they proceed to copy with peculiar and often disastrous results, for even these theatres are in many cases badly designed and often for a totally different type of entertainment. I wonder sometimes if many architects involved in such tasks ever consider, for instance, that the six sides of a stage all of which are important, are used in various ways and about which are certain essential factors. A fair sized book could almost be written about the floor or ‘deck’ of the stage itself. Merely putting a platform in a hall does not make the building a theatre with a stage.

I am no expert in these matters; but look, there are grey hairs on my head from trying to handle scenery in some of the places termed ‘theatres’ in this country. I shake my head sadly too, whenever I watch some sincere, earnest drama group coping with the same problems. What some of the architects and engineers are responsible for in some of these buildings is unbelievable. One city engineer, with a memory perhaps of having seen a curtain on a stage in some old and beautiful. Continental Opera House, proceeded to install much the same thing in a city concert hall with a proscenium opening of about twenty-six feet by seventeen. The machinery for operating it ought to be one of the tourist attractions of that city. An architect of similar standing had pointed out to him that he had designed footlights so that they just shone across the deck and lit the performers' feet. His reply was, ‘Of course they do, that's why they are called footlights, isn't it?’ A third such professional man solved the problem of handling scenery on the local town hall stage easily. He designed and had built the stage in such a way that there were real doors and real windows set permanently in the walls so that there would be no need to have scenery for plays at all, seeing that all the plays he had ever witnessed took place in a room with doors and windows in it. These are facts available in concrete.

So pause, please, Mr. Architect and Mr. Engineer before you design the next stage or the next theatre. Do a little reading. Find out about theatre principles. Find out what happens backstage as well as consider the building from the audience's point of view. And if you younger architects in particular want to plan something that will benefit our communities, add to their welfare and help fill their hearts as well, then do some research into the whole business of stage and theatre design. Theatres for our communities are just as important as swimming baths and hospitals. We need them just as much.

(Note: There are no illustrations to this article. I could have used photographs of theatres in Britain, America and on the Continent, but what I want to see are designs and photographs of theatres that belong to New Zealand.)