Theatre spaces
Showcase Stage, Portal, Space Stage

Theater Heidelberg – Marguerre-Saal
Theater Heidelberg – Marguerre-Saal | Photo (detail): © waechter+waechter architekten bda

Theatre spaces are changing. Now that many theatres are being renovated and it rarely happens that completely new theatres are built, the question arises how to plan and reconstruct them so that the ensemble of stage and auditorium meet today’s needs.

To this day municipal theatres in many German cities still lodge showcase stages, as they were built in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as stately rooms for the nobility. Their special feature: rows of boxes in which the nobility could show themselves and remain amongst their own kind. Even when the middle classes grew in strength and took the reins, theatres were still planned along the lines of the court theatre. It was only after the Second World War, when new buildings replaced the many that were destroyed in the fighting, that the ensemble of auditorium and stage was given a more functional cut. Many cities plumped for separate opera houses and theatres.

Loge and orchestra pit

This especially benefited the theatre. Suddenly plays were performed in spaces without loges and orchestra pits. The stage moved closer to the audience, the quieter tones of the intimate play became possible. Today, since the buildings and technical facilities of many theatres are in need of redevelopment and it rarely happens that (as in Heidelberg) an older theatre building is completely renovated, the question has again arisen as to how stage and auditorium should be designed so that they meet the needs of contemporary theatre.

The tenet of design obtains: forms follows function. The performance season of German playhouses and municipal theatres is bound to the repertory system. The architectural design and technical outfitting of a theatre can therefore be conceived only in terms of this system. Repertories with daily changing productions make special demands on the logistics of a theatre. The much discussed “space stage”, for example, in which there exists no separation of stage from auditorium and new spatial solutions are possible after each production, is not necessarily suitable for a repertory theatre.

Repertory vs. en suite

This is the view of Jan Pappelbaum, set designer and head of set design at the Berlin Schaubühne, who came to the theatre in Lehniner Platz with Thomas Ostermeier in autumn 1999 and there found a space stage. The building by Mendelsohn is one giant room that can be divided into three performance areas, which can in turn be set up in various ways. But, according to Pappelbaum, “That isn’t much use to us. This ‘At last we can produce all known and unknown forms of theatre space’ would be useful if we performed en suite. But we don’t. Our productions come twice or, at most, five times on stage and so the effort to change the basic set-up of the space every time would be much too great.”

That space stages are more suited to en suite theatres applies especially in times in which theatres face an ever growing acceleration. This has been the case for a number of years and has had the effect that the demands with respect to changes of set design and re-arrangement pf lighting and sound have steadily increased. Stages should therefore be as versatilely usable and alterable as possible. But above all, according to Pappelbaum, it is desirable that the basic space enables the fastest possible entrances and exits. “It’s a matter of the cut of the stage, but also of the surroundings, the back stages and the side stages. They should be so designed and equipped with wire rope hoists and lifting platforms that I, as set designer, don’t fall into the predicament of having to create the entrances and exists by means of the set design.”

Charming aesthetics

The result: a new building or the renovation of an existing theatre is a matter of spatial solutions and technical details that enable the shortest building times. Pappelbaum speaks of the “charmingly restrained aesthetics” that these spaces should have. In addition to this sort of practical question, it is also a matter of the dimensions of theatre spaces. This is especially true when the building is constructed specifically for theatre performance.

The basic rule is: Not too big. The Frankfurt Theatre, for example, which moved into a new building in Willy Brandt Square in 1963, lays on the largest theatre stage in the German-speaking world. This is not advantageous. “In opera there’s no problem with such voluminous spaces”, says Pappelbaum. “In theatre, on the other hand, directors have problems with them if only because not many actors can fill such huge spaces with their aura. Quite often it then falls upon the set design must to adjust the conditions.”

Closeness of stage and audience

Yet it is also true of the Frankfurt Theatre that it was built after the Second World War and no longer has the classical portal from the days of court stages. The audience sits close to a cinemascope stage. The auditorium can hence be more easily incorporated into the set design than it can with a traditional showcase stage. The greatest possible closeness of stage and audience should therefore be the guiding principle of a theatre building, even when, as in Heidelberg, it is a case of a performance area for both opera and theatre.