* To be consultent witli cubook method, figures shown should be reduced by 10 portent to ovoid overcrowding shelve


Fig. 2 The typical eariv-twentieth-cantuty American theater had meayoi and often inadequate stage and supporting facilities.

The twentieth century brought an entirely new attitude toward shaping our theaters. Whereas in the past, a consistent, developing production technique gave rise to a single, if gradually developing theater shape for each period, in the last 60 years several theater shapes have boon available for our use. Due partly, no doubt, to nineteenth-century historicism and scholarship, a revival of earlier stage forms sprang up to accompany the mainstream tradition of the proscenium stage. There began to be a multiple choice of theater shapes for plays in the twentieth century — a situation that was unknown in previous times. This movement clearly underscored the tremendous activity in theater arts — the thinking and lack of it—being done by all people involved.

Proscenium Theaters

From the turn of the twentieth century to the present day, the proscenium theater a direct-line survival of the horseshoe opera house that originated in the Renaissance —has continued as the most generally accepted end widely built theater shape in this country. By definition, a proscenium theater is a shape in which the audience faces the performing area on one side only and sees the performing urea through an architectural opening that often has an elaborated architectural frame —although thai is not on essential element. The performing area is not always limited by that opening; it can project out a nominal distance into the auditorium in the form of what is called a fore-stage or apron. In essence, this is not an intimate theater shape, since the audience and the actors are each in separate, but connected, interior rooms (see Fig. 1),

At the turn of the century, many American proscenium theaters were outmoded and run down, despite the tact that tho theater itself was prosperous. Unlike European theaters of the time, in the United States experiments were hampered by the tack of space, prohibitive

77*0 Shape of Our Theatre, Clarkson N Poller, Publisher, New York labor costs, and the overriding profit motive of the commorical American theater. Very few of these theaters were built with adequate machinery - stage elevators or turntables. Tenants were expected to bring everything with them, including turntables and all lighting equipment. Consequently, early-twentieth-century producing groups dedicated to the new stagecraft and contemporary American playwrights found their theaters woefully inadequate in shape and meager in equipment.

The absentee landlord's profits were not put back into the buildings or into new equipment, particularly stage lighting equipment. Actually, landlords were not absent physically. What was missing was any reAl love of the arts of the theater; instead they substituted a love of profits. If ihey were away from their theaters for any length of time, their general managers were on hand to keep a watchful eye on financial operations.

One New York City landlord-builder ordered a theater constructed with as little space as possible for the stage, the lobby, and between* legroom rows. In one instance the box office was omitted entirely. In spite ol the owner's concern over his new theater's capacity to operate on a profitable level, the absence of any professional theater people on the owner's or the architect's staff was responsible for the amazing amission. Only in a Inst-mtnute inspection by the owner did this situation reveal itself, and a hastily designed and very cramped box office was quickly put in.

One theater builder in Philadelphia forgot to include dressing rooms And later had them constructed in a separate building across an alley, back of the theater. This little convenience meant that the artist, to get from his dressing room to the stage, had to go down to the basement, literally duck under sewage and steam pipes, and then go up into the other building. All this showed little understanding for the art of the theater— and no respect for its artists (see Fig. 2).

Because of this gerierul situation, it was the

Fig. 1 The proscenium shape.

Fig. 2 The typical eariv-twentieth-cantuty American theater had meayoi and often inadequate stage and supporting facilities.

producer, not the (heater owner, who was forced to keep up with the times and pay *<>r proper facilities and equipment to install portable dressing rooms backstage. I noto these almost unbelievable instances not in the spirit of gossip, but to stress the need for the constant presence of a professional theater expert — not on the outskirts of a projected theater design, but in a position of responsibility.

However, some producer-managers who were clients for thair own theater buildings had a real love of theater itBelf, and an understanding of the latest European stagecraft developments. Among them were the Frohmans, David Belasco, and Florenz Ziegfeld; the latter retained architect-scene designer Joseph Urban to design his own theater. Winthrop Ames, a wealthy amateur of the arts, and a thoroughly professional producer, put up the Century Theater on New York's Central Park West. This 2,000-seat theater was notably ahead of its time, but was soon demolished because no contemporary repertory company could fill it.

If the absentee theater owners had been more knowing, if they hod even more materialistic imagination, they would hove made the kind of improvement that Billy Rose later made to his Ziegfeld Theatre (since demolished). There he equipped the backstage as well as the auditorium with the latest, most efficient lighting equipment and lighting control systems. Even il motivated solely by financial self-interest, this produced lucrative rentals from his tenants, and also provided presentational potential for the users.

Because the picture frame theaters were badly designed and therefore nearly unusable, they have recently been much downgraded. They were not bad simply because they were old or because they had proscenium forms, but because of their initial poor design. What moat of us hove forgotten is that the proscenium stage has been for centuries and will remain one of our most useful theater shapes.

A Revival of Ancient Shapes

As early as I9t4, a group at Teachers Col* lege in New York used the simplest bleachers and seats on four sides of a medium-sized room to create an arena stage. An ancient theater shape, the arena stage was used in the great coliseums and arenas of Greece and Rome— but never specifically for drama. This new usage was the beginning of a revival.

The arena is a theeter-in-the-round. The stage is surrounded on all sides by the audience. This arrangement puts the greatest number of Ihe audience in intimate proximity with the performer. Both the audience and actor are in Ihe same room, Others were gradually won

colly minimizes the expensive, elaborate scenery usually associated with the proscenium tradition, (See Fig. 3.)

The period following World War I was exciting both in Europe and America. Inspired by a fresh approach to writing and the new European expressionistic stage designers and producers— Adolphe Apple in Switzerland, Max

Reinhardt and Leopold Jeasner in Germany — our best young playwrights, Eugene O'Neill, Elmer Rice, and John Howard Lawson, helped launch and stimulate a new attitude toward stagecraft in the United States.

Expressionistic scene development in Germany and Russia was also reflected in America. Lee Simonson, Norman Bel Geddas. and Robert Edinond Jones produced designs of dramatic imagination for scenery and stsge. However, since they were not in the malnslream of commercial thinking, few of these new stages were actually built.

Conventional Broadway was not the only vital place; community and college playhouses sprang up all over the country. But the time and cost of producing scenery led directors to bypass that traditional problem and to investigate other techniques of stagecraft-

Early in this century, the ancient open-thrust stage, which had been used before the development of the proscenium theatre, was revived by several directors and producers. High costs of proscenium productions, which required elaborate and sometimes complicoted scenery as well as high operating costs, led to this revival. Coupled with this was a desire to bring greater intimacy to the theater again. (See Fig. A.)

The open-thrust stage had experienced an earlier revival in Europe. Davioud and Bourdais' unexecuted 1875 opera house design proposed a stage of extreme thrust, extending 50 ft into the auditorium with seating on three sides. And in the twenties, the Parisian actor-director Jacques Copeau conceived a truly open theater chamber of intimate proportions in his Theatre Vieux Colombier. His open stage had multiple

Fig. 6 Ihe uoen Hag a of J .unites Cnflaau'« Vieux Colombier, Palis, had multiple levels and a Man hie but permanent architectural sat.


Fig. 6 Ihe uoen Hag a of J .unites Cnflaau'« Vieux Colombier, Palis, had multiple levels and a Man hie but permanent architectural sat.

levels, a number of entrances and exits, and « flexible architectural set, which was permanent and therefore cost-cutting. Neither of these European theater designs directly influenced American stage designs, however, until the educational theater did so much to spur the revival of the open-thrust stage. (See Fig- 5,)

American educators fell that the proper method of teaching Shakespeare was to permit students to act and to observe performances of his plays on the type of stage for which they were written. Educators often attempted makeshift open-thrust stages in whatever theaters were available to them. Scenery of the proscenium tradition was virtually eliminated in open-thrust stagecraft. And ultimately permanent open-thrust stage theaters were constructed by the producers of Shakespeare festivals for such regional and community groups as those et San Diego, California; Portland. Oregon; and later the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

A thrust stage must not be confused with extended forestages in proscenium theatres, which utilize techniques of acting, direction, and designing that du not differ from standard proscenium stagecraft. A true thrust stage is a platform extending into an open auditorium in which the audience truly surrounds the stage on three sides. There may be exits in the back of the stage, as well as under the audience through vomitory tunnels A thrust stage is an areo deep and wide enough on which to play a full scene. When an apron or forestage is only an adjunct to a proscenium stage, it should not be considered a thrust stage (see Fig. 6), and more cultivated- There was a new boom in theater construction, The quarter-century hiatus in building, however, had left its mark. A whole generation of architects and designers had been passed by, and the new generation was unschooled in the development of stage design. This ignorance led to rampant confusion in theater design.

Multiple Choice at Midcentury

Wh en theatre building activity was resumed, the proscenium was the only widely known theater shape; therefore it continued to be popular To make the proscenium more effective for mid-twentieth-century use, new developments were introduced by architects and designers. Electrically operated flying scenery, electronic control systems like those that preset positions for stage elevators, and predetermined lighting plans made the designing of theaters as complicated as it made the physical operation simpler. More and more sophisticated attention to good sight lines and seating furthered the continuation of the proscenium tradition.

Clients, on the other hand, sometimes continued n status-seeking reverence for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European models that could not, in all ways, take advantage of these new techniques. A significant example of this reactionary view was the attitude of the Metropolitan Opera Board of Direc* tors toward commissioning a new opera house in Lincoln Center. I am not criticizing the architects' designs or even their execution. The design was chosen with the conviction that the "Golden Horseshoe ' of their old (1882) house wos sacrosanct. A sentimental attachment to the past, as well as a lack of sympathy with contemporary design, may well have influenced the Board's decision, But I would suspect that the leer of alienating the few. but financially critical constituents was the dominant factor in their decision,

I am well aware that backstage the mechanical facilities of the new Metropolitan Opera House are up to date and undoubtedly do much to keep down the backbreaking operational overhead

That they did not attempt to peer into the not-tou-diafant twenty-first century is understandable The life-span of contemporary structures —particularly those associated with the performing arts, is shortening ao quickly that new theater shapes may serve satisfactorily for only a generation or two- But in delib erately choosing a multitiered eighteenth-century horseshoe seating plan, the directors were guilty of a graver error than just inflicting substandard sight lines. That error was the failure to recognize that our twentieth-century visual art forms are not jusl passing fads, but are deeply dyed in our daily Jives, in our means of communication and our social behavior. It seems strange that the impresarios of an art fo rm HK abstract as music should allow themselves to close their eyes to even the most universally acceptable visual arts of our mid-century.

Today, only after careful consideration, proper planning and design will the proscenium theater regain its usefulness, A modem proscenium theater need not be rigid in its dimensions—either in width or height. Side panels adjacent to the proscenium can have facilities lor openings and side stages Offstage rooms — right and left, up and down, traps and fly loft — all ha ve to be provided. All these elements lend greet flexibility to the Proscenium stage, but also make it more complex and more expensive to build. Basically, the proscenium is one of the most flexible theater shapes because any and all styles of production can be effectively realized. For the director, the problems of sight lines and other questions inherent in proscenium productions ore fluid. In stagecraft, particularly lighting and settings, everything from the most stylistic and simple designs to the most elaborate arid imaginative settings can take full advantage of this shape. Even a play such as Hair, which was first performed on an open stage, was successfully produced on Broadway in a proscenium theater. (See Fig. 7.)

The limitation of this theater shape is thot it tends to be less intimate than either ihe The-ater-in-the-round or the open-thrust stage. Yet it also must be remembered that many ploy-Wrights want the kind oi separation between actor and audience that the proscenium shape gives. On the whole, if I were limited to a single stage form, I would choose a flexible proscenium with an ample forestage

During the 1950s, labor and material costs again led clients as well as producers and designers to seek new methods of stagecraft. So it was that arena stages or theaters-in-the-round gained wider acceptance as a suitable setting for spoken drama. They were less expensive to build and required virtually no conventional scenery A strong influence during the theater explosion, the arena stage in Washington, D.C., clearly demonstrates how sophisticated theater-in-the-round can be De-

Fig. 6 The apron shape.

Thus, by the end of the twenties, theater professionals had a choice of not only the traditional proscenium stage but also the revived open-thrust and the arena stage forms.

Hiatus in Theater Building

The Depression of 1929 brought a virtual end to theater building in the United States until the end of Worfd War II. No commercial theaters were built in major American cities between 1929 and 1950. The sole exception was Rockefeller Center's Cente. Theatre, built in 1936 and demolished in 3 950, In the thirties, only a lew colleges and universities had the funds to build modern theaters with stages designed for modern stagecraft and modern repertory requirements.

After World War 11, America was ripe for a "cultural explosion,' Mid-twentieth-century Americans were more affluent, better traveled,

Fig. 7 In today's proscenium theatet, the width of the proscenium opening can often be varied by adjustable panais.

signed for Zelda Fichandler in 1961 by Chicago architects Harry Weese & Associates, it is a far cry from the frequently seen, makeshift the-aters-in-the-round. WeM planned and successful, it is actually a theater-irvthe-rectangle, but the principle of an audience surrounding the stage is identical- Here both the architect and the owner worked carefully to meet the needs of the company and to solve the technical problems and limitations of such a theater shape (see Fig, 8).

One built-in limitation of arena stages is applicable to all stages surrounded, or partly surrounded, by the audience: the director must constantly change his axis to prevent one group of viewers from being presented with poorer images than other sections of the audience. Actors, as well as the director, must use entirely different attacks on performance and movement. Lighting is also more difficult in arena staging because of the mandatory econo* my; however, when handled by an artist, this flexible medium can stress the nonillusionistic approach to a design. ,

In addition, the ability to vary settings is a timitafion( both because architectural forms are impractical, and because elevations on the stage have to be limited in scale. In choosing a repertory for an arena stage company, certain plays such as the classical plays of Sophocles, Euripides. Shakespeare. Moliere, and Sheridan — succeed while, on the other hand, some plays written for the proscenium stage must be omitted-

One of the primary advantages of an arena theater is intimacy. Even wilh 1,000 seats, the most distant member of the audience need not be much more Ihon 32 h from the nearest part of the stage. Although in more sophisticated theaters-in-the-round, it is possible to use traps and to fly elements overhead from a modified grid above the center of the stage, scenic investiture is ordinarily reduced to only the most expressive and economical forms of lighting and projection, costumes, props, and simple portable scenic elements that do not mask the actor from any part of the surrounding audience. On the whole, I think the advantages lar outweigh the disadvantages of arena theoters. The foct that presentation style stresses imagination and simplicity is surely a strong argument.

Throughout the fifties and sixties a major innovative force in theater architecture has been Irish theater director Sir Tyrone Guthrie, In the fifties, after much acclaimed experimentation in England and Scotland, Guthrie was invited by the bright, ambitious young community leaders of Stratford. Ontario, to establish a theater. Intended primarily for the classics, the theater was first set up inside a tent, and later rebuilt under a permanent architectural structure {see Fig. 9),

Tyrone Guthrie s concept for Stratford, which was worked out with theater designer Tanya Moiaewitsch, was appropriately a classical one. The auditorium is based on a steeply banked, semicircular, Greco-Roman, three-sided seating arrangement; it surrounds an open-thrust stage that has many basic elements of the Elizabethan stage Besides entrances from the rear wall, Guthrie also used vomitories, which are entrances and exits to the stage from below the audience seating areas.

Little if any background scenery is used. Stress is on costumes, props, and lighting, which the director/designer team use in the most imaginative and simplest way to create scenic atmosphere Light is used almost entirely as illumination, with very little sophistication in movement, color, or image projection. On the other hand, their sophisticated use of costumes and properties has been extremely important in creating a sense of mood and character. The impact of the theater was international. It was intimate and vital, and extremely suitable for the classics.

A few years later, after the Ontario theater had been built. Guthrie himself initiated, with Oliver Rea, a similar venture in Minneapolis, Minnesota. There, he planned with architect Ralph Rapson a variation on the Stratford, Ontario, theater. Corrections were made, for example, in the sight lines at extreme left and right. He included facilities for hanging scenery behind the thrust. It is a token proscenium behind the thrust stage. This combination of the two theater forms was a major innovation. And thoughtlul architects and designers throughout the country and abroad studied it with great interest.

An open-thrust stage can be extremely simple, like Tyrone Guthrie's Stratford, Ontario, theater. It can then be elaborated by planning an adaptable grid for lights, props, and scenic elements to be hung directly over the thrust. Vet all this fits into the basically simple staging that is germane to the shape.

The advantages of thrust are clear and strong, but so are its disadvantages. Of the advantages, the greatest is perhaps the heightened sense of involvement gained by both the audience and the actor. Intimacy naturally is enhanced; the movement and pace of the play are swift; and the technique is fluid and cinematographic. The open-thrust stage does, however, diminish the significance of the "II-lusionisttc" style of slage design. (Depending on one's point of view, admittedly, this may be counted either as one of its advantages or as one of its limitations. For me, illusion is one of the lesser achievements of the contemporary theater.) The open stage requires a totally different approach. The cast cannot be directed to act only toward the front, because the audience is on the sides as well. And, in a sense, they must act dimensionally within a scenic scheme, rather than in front of it. Costumes also become more important as do the few but choice properties with which the actors work, And finally, because background pictures are not being created, lighting must become a living element through which players move-

Generally, the open-thrust stage is more flexible than the arena. With the open-thrust stage, the director does not have to worry so much aboul the actor s back being to the audience- But because the open-thrust is more complicated to design, it may turn out to be more expensive to build than the arena or proscenium theatre,

Perhaps the most outstanding disadvantage is that the more realistic a play is, the less effective it may be for the open-thrust stage. Shakespearean plays and other earlier classics are easily adaptable since in their writing and production they were presented on open Elizabethan stages with a minimum of scenic effects. Much of nineteenth-century drama is considered ill-suited for the open-thrust stagei but this also presents an opportunity for an imaginative director to approach these plays with a radically fresh style.

Of the multiple choices in theater shapes at midcentury, then, three were prominent proscenium. arena, and open-thrust; but more involved, complex choices of theater shapes were

Fig 9 The Sti afford, Ontario, Shakespeare Fasti«al Theatre has boon aa influential interpretation of the opnn-thruit stage. It combines an Elizabethan stage with a Greco-Roman audience seating plan.

yet to confuse the decision-making end design processes of architects and clients.

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