Take the stage

Take the stage

Architect’s Choice explores the Stirling Prize Winner, Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, and the advent of good theatre design in architecture.


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The Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, designed by Haworth Tompkins, is undoubtedly a worthy winner of 2014’s RIBA Stirling Prize trophy.

The old Everyman Theatre in Liverpool opened in 1964 in the shell of a nineteenth century chapel on one of Liverpool’s main streets. Although a much-loved institution, the building itself was in a state of disrepair.  The decision to pull the theatre down and replace it with a new one has been a nine-year project for the architects Haworth Tompkins.
The team expertly met a difficult challenge: that of creating an entirely new and sustainable building, whilst retaining and revitalising the best-loved features of its predecessor. The architects were tasked with ensuring that the soul of the old Everyman, one of informality and community ownership – the ‘theatre of the people’-  was carried into the new building.

The result is a new building with a striking exterior and elegant interior, all with exceptional attention to detail and sustainability credentials.

Architect’s Choice considered the impact of a theatre winning the RIBA Stirling Prize and what it means for designers in the sector. Here, Stanton Williams, Arup and Cassidy + Ashton, discuss different elements of the intricacies of theatre design and its impact for the future.

Theatre design is, like the productions that are staged, divided into many acts with which the architect/designer must follow. The interior space is one of those defining acts in a theatre’s success. How do you work to create dynamic and functioning interior theatre spaces to compliment the overall architecture and how do you feel those elements of theatre design have changed in recent years?

Alan Stanton, Stanton Williams – The opportunity to design a theatre space is especially interesting for an architect because it represents a scale of interior where people come together in a communal venture. When designing for the theatre we have always tried to work from first principles. If one thinks of theatre taking place in an informal context, a public square for example, it is interesting to see how people will instinctively form themselves into a space around a performer. The shape that they make naturally responds to the energy and dynamics of the performance itself. And when there is not enough space, people occupy balconies or even take to the trees to see what is going on. Thus an architectural space is implied and created.

The art of theatre design is a careful balancing act between the needs of the audience and the requirements of the staging of the drama. Although the overall space is formed to maximise intimacy between performer and audience, there exists a kind of line that is drawn between the stage space and the audience space, which seems to be a territory for endless negotiation. In the days of proscenium theatre, the proscenium “frame” made life much easier in terms of defining what was theatre space and what was audience space. Many of today’s theatres require multiple formats: end-on, traverse, in-the-round etc. and so the architecture of the space has to accommodate all of these different forms without being diluted and losing its presence.

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We are currently designing a new, second, theatre for the Royal Opera House in London within the shell of the Linbury Studio Theatre where our brief is to create a space that has warmth, comfort, and a distinct character (not a ‘black box’) – and of course it too, must be adaptable to different staging formats. Working in close collaboration with the artistic and technical team at The Royal Opera House, the challenge for us is to use the architecture of the space to resolve these seeming contradictions.

Sound is integral to the mood and atmosphere of a theatre/concert hall. It defines the performances and rouses the audiences.  When working in multi-purpose theatre/concert spaces, how does the brief for acoustics change and evolve? What makes an acoustically accurate space successful adaptable?

Rob Harris, Arup Fellow – Successful theatre design relies on achieving a balance of three components: architecture, acoustics and theatricality.  The great historic UK theatres of Frank Matcham are a great illustration. Equally there are theatres, which look good but sadly, sound poor. To achieve this delicate balance of great aesthetics and great sound, it is essential for the leaders of the architectural, acoustic and theatre design disciplines to be balanced in their judgment and approach.

Sound in theatres can be either natural, with no microphones or loudspeakers or sound reinforced, meaning amplified using loudspeakers. In many theatres the latter is often the norm as per the requirements of the production teams.

Audiences for drama generally seek and expect natural acoustics. The key role for the acoustic designer is to achieve excellent speech intelligibility, with the actor facing both toward and away from the listener, and speaking from a dramatic shout down to a quiet whisper. In building design terms, this means achieving the right volume, approximately  five m3 per listener for a drama theatre, or 2500m3 for a 500 seat theatre. There is also the prerequisite geometry, which provides the right pattern of early sound reflections that increases intelligibility and acoustical intimacy.

Some of the most dramatic moments in a theatrical performance are brief pauses of silence. The ‘bond of belief’ between performers and listeners must not be broken during these precious moments. This and the need to understand quiet dramatic speech, means that the control of noise in a theatre is of great importance. External noise, like traffic and rainfall, sound from simultaneous activities in the building, services and theatre systems and from stage lighting must be rigorously controlled.

In larger ‘lyric’ theatres for show, sound and musicals the acoustic must still present a controlled and neutral palette for the production sound designer to work with, and often the acoustic is designed to be a little more reverberant or expansive (perhaps six m3 per listener).  Examples of successful lyric theatres, which allow for both natural and reinforced sound include the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin (Daniel Libeskind) and the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff (Percy Thomas Partnership).

There are many ways in which the architecture, acoustics and theatre installations can be holistically designed to mutual benefit. Well-designed side balconies can provide architecture at a human scale, useful sound reflecting surfaces, effective stage lighting and loudspeaker positions. Proscenium theatres also use design features to acoustic benefit. These have a separate stage, surrounded by a proscenium arch (the arch surrounding the stage). The arch itself is of importance architecturally, acoustically, theatrically and requires a balanced integrated design.

Current financial and artistic constraints often mean that theatres have to accommodate performances, in particular orchestral music, which require a very different sound. To illustrate this, a concert hall generally has twice the volume of a theatre, ~10m3/listener. This requirement can be satisfied either by major physical flexibility, opening up the theatre proscenium to from a concert hall “end” to the space, or by installing an electronic “active architecture” system, with touchscreen dial-up of the appropriate acoustic for a particular performance. An excellent example is the main auditorium in the new Stormen Kulturhus in Bodø, Norway (by DRDH Architects) which has recently opened.

Patrons will begin and end their theatric journey in the opening space of a theatre. How does the design of the foyer/entrance areas, impact the design of the overall space and what are the expectations on the architect when briefing for this area of design?

Lawrence McBurney, Associate Architect, Cassidy + Ashton – The question of where the theatrical journey begins has a huge impact on theatre design and, with The Everyman, it clearly starts before you even enter the theatre with the etched metal brise soleil that creates a cast of local people across the front façade.

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For the Grade II* listed Grand Theatre in Blackpool that Cassidy + Ashton is currently working on, the theatrical journey is very different. Because we are working within the confines of a listed building it is not possible to create the open plan feel that’s been delivered so successfully at The Everyman. Instead, our specialist experience in heritage projects helps us to create the right balance between the 21st century practical considerations of a theatre entrance/box office and the drama delivered thanks to the contrast between the enclosed foyer and the stunning interior of the auditorium.

It’s difficult to compare the two schemes because they are so very different but the element that connects them in terms of the entrance is impact and this must lie at the heart of the aesthetic for any theatre foyer… regardless of whether it’s a new build or a refurbishment.

The driving force behind The Everyman project was the fact that the original building was no longer suitable for the way in which theatres are used today. That fundamental principle is just as true of the entrance and foyer as it is of the auditorium, rehearsal rooms and back of house areas.

The term ‘box office’ was coined because originally this was where theatre goers purchasing tickets for the seats in boxes would enter the building, with the remaining patrons entering through a side door and putting their penny in the box. As a result, the entrance to older theatres was not designed to be a major circulation area or socialising space, which is why reconfiguring the cramped spaces of The Grand and improving accessibility is such a major element of the scheme in Blackpool.

Not only do theatre foyers need to accommodate more people than they would have done in the past, they also need to play a role as revenue generators. While it was ticket sales that sustained theatres commercially when The Grand was built with several performances each day, the 21st century theatre is all about the experience… not just about the show.

Again, this brings us back to aesthetic impact, but it also demands consideration for additional revenue generation, including bars, restaurants, merchandising and space that can be used for corporate events. It’s essential that specification for these areas is sufficiently high to attract and retain paying customers, bringing people in to use the building outside of performance times and encouraging theatre goers to stay after the show rather than taking their post-theatre socialising to other bars.

For Cassidy + Ashton one of the biggest challenges of designing a foyer refurbishment in a much loved listed building is enhancing the flexibility of the space so that it is suitable for a variety of audiences, shows and purposes, both now and in the future. For example, some productions may have pop-up merchandising stalls in the foyer afterwards, some are aimed at children and some may attract an elderly demographic… the space needs to cater for a variety of needs.

This imperative must also be designed into the toilet facilities and access to the building. At The Grand we have introduced a platform lift for wheelchair access to work around the restrictions of its listed status, however, for a new build project, the principle that the theatre is for everyone must be integral to the design in terms of access, layout and facilities.

Ultimately, the entrance to a theatre is where the magic begins, whether that’s for theatre-goers, school parties using the education facilities or leisure footfall accessing bars/restaurants outside of performance times. The statement the foyer makes will vary depending on the type of shows the theatre puts on, its location and whether it is a heritage building or a new build, regardless of these variables however, it should always be part of the theatre experience.


Jade Tilley
Jade Tilley

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