The new stage and auditorum of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, opened to the public in November 2010, is in a way a coming home for the Bard. After more than 400 years of evolution and collaboration, the design chosen to create the best environment for performing and enjoying Shakespeare's plays is one that (minus the high tech elements) Shakespeare himself would have been comfortable in.
The evolutionary process that led to the new theater and auditorium began when the Swan Theatre was created in the 1980s in the shell of the Victorian Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. That theatre, built as a temporary summer festival theater in 1879, had been destroyed by fire in 1926.
Almost as soon as the Swan, a modern version of an Elizabethan theater, opened, audiences liked it better than the main theater. The galleries of seats that surrounded the small stage were closer to the action. Actors and audience could interact with each other helping to make Shakespeare not only clear and understandable, but more enjoyable for most audiences.
The new theater had to hold a bigger audience to be viable but the example of the Swan led architects, theater designers and the Royal Shakespeare Company to experiment with similar ideas. During the construction, a temporary theater, The Courtyard, was used to try out everything from comfortable seating to staging and acoustics.
Size MattersBesides the new thrust stage (which can be changed in shape and size all the way back to a conventional, proscenium arch theater), all sort of new ideas have been incorporated. In the new galleried arrangement of seats, no one is more than 15 meters (just under 50 feet) from the stage. Lights can spill out onto the audience so that actors and audience can make eye contact (though probably not for all productions). To do this, the company had to sacrifice 400 seats of the old, cinema-style theater.
Acoustics and sight lines were carefully worked out so that there are excellent seats at all levels. And the floor of the new auditorium is wood instead of carpet. It enhances sound making the audience aware of its own sound. As theater design consultant, Gavin Green of Charcoalblue, said, "When the audience gasps, the effect is amazing." Green also led a team that chose the seats, designed by an Italian company who does seats for Ferrari.
Backstage innovations were significant too. The theatre now has a 7 meter deep basement so that sets can be raised from beneath, and a new fly tower so big that RSC Artistic Director said, "I can drop in the whole forest of Arden if I want to."
One of the biggest technical innovations is the RSC Lightlock, created for the company by Charcoal Blue. It's a hoist that moves around and can operate lights by remote control. It means that no one has to climb up into the tower to adjust the lights or interfere with work on stage during lighting set ups. Anyone who's struggled with their nerves climbing a ladder to set theater lights (yes, that's me too), can appreciate this innovation. The lighting design industry apparently appreciates it too. It won an industry innovation award within three months of being created and is now being sold around the world.