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The National Theatre: A Place for Plays
Sunday 30 October 2016
Olivier Theatre
A Symposium for the 40th Anniversary of the opening by
Her Majesty the Queen of the National Theatre by Sir Denys Lasdun
Theatre and Architecture: A Discussion
Confrontation, Misunderstanding or Collaboration?
The NT’s Birthday - What next for our theatre?
presented by the ABTT
in association with the National Theatre
Symposium Directors:
Paule Constable & Richard Pilbrow
“Sometimes the house of the future is better built, lighter
and larger than all the houses of the past.”
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space.
Theatre building is an ancient business. Long before the Greeks built their — originally wooden — amphitheatres,
man told stories through presenting plays. Since the days of Shakespeare, the ‘wooden O’ has exemplified an
ideal architectural environment for sharing such storytelling.
Theatre and architecture develop over different timescales: theatre is the ultimate ephemeral event — here today
and gone often before tomorrow — while architecture is intended for the ages.
We workers in the theatre tend to take the spaces in which we work for granted. At the start of your career, if
you’re lucky — you get a job. You’re thrilled to pass through that stage door and you quickly fall into the expected
backstage routine.
Architecture creates the space in which we work. Perhaps surprisingly architecture is as prone to fleeting fashion
as is theatre. Styles of production and of buildings ebb and flow. Certain historical periods create the conditions for
new types of theatre. A student of theatre history senses that the great and productive periods of theatre building
were conceived in moments of creative excellence and leadership from the theatre.
From the Elizabethan golden age, theatre architecture evolved. For several centuries intimacy and a lively
interaction between player and spectator were deemed fundamental. Then growing populations and commercial
pressures expanded the size of “the house” until intimacy became ever harder to capture. The 20th Century
abandoned the clustering of audiences as close to the stage as possible, sought greater capacity and more
perfect frontal sightlines, just like the soon-to-be-invented cinema. Defying this trend, new/old forms of theatre
were beginning to be re-explored: thrust, arena, and open stages that brought new opportunities and yet fresh
confusion to the architects’ studio.
This was the scene in 1904 when serious thought about the National Theatre began. Harley Granville Barker
conceived his plan against a background of theatre architecture by Matcham, Phipps and others: intimate threedimensional spaces with boxes and balconies. But by the 1960’s such principles had been rejected for a more
stripped back modernism. A three centuries old tradition of evolving theatre design had been abandoned. Only the
label “new” was deemed desirable.
Since the National opened in 1976 there has been an international revolution in theatre design. In the face of
diverse competition from both the fringe and the media, new recognition of the need for intimacy and human
interaction between player and audience has emerged, resulting in a return to three-dimensional audience spaces
that seek to wrap audiences as tightly as possible about the player. Collaboration between the theatre designer
and architect has generated new, flexible and more intimate theatre. Successful new theatres are never conceived
by an architect unguided in the arts of theatre.
The National has proven to be an important success. Theatre people have conquered its perceived challenges to
achieve many triumphs. The purpose of today’s symposium is to provoke an honest dialogue: theatre worker with
architect and theatre designer: Where do we go from here for “plays… plays… plays…”.
While theatre architecture may be locked in concrete perpetuity, theatre technology changes. From Lightboard,
studio sound, power flying and drum revolves we’re entering a new multimedia/digital era. What will tomorrow
Theatre directors, designers, and craftsmen and women are
in the business of “making things work.” Our lives are about
delivering on time and on budget. Our credo has always been
that whatever the challenge, the ‘curtain will rise on time’. A new
determination to ensure open collaboration between theatre,
engineering and architecture will ensure better theatres for the
Paule Constable and Richard Pilbrow
Symposium Programme
“We must be fearless in using the arts as a crucible in which we come
to understand who we are as individuals, as communities and as
a nation… A free exchange of ideas, talent and creativity.”
Rufus Norris, Director, National Theatre.
09:30 – 10:15
Arrival and Registration
10:15 – 10:30
Richard Pilbrow and Paule Constable
10:30 – 11:45
Theatre meets architecture: A conversation
Chairman: Prof. Gavin Henderson CBE
Principal of Royal Central School of Speech and Drama
Opening conversation: Director Rufus Norris with architect Steve Tompkins
discuss their past working relationship and collaborations, what they have asked
of each other and of the theatre spaces they have worked with.
Panel: Scenic Designer Ian MacNeil and Theatre Sound Designer Paul Arditti
talk about their favourite theatres, the difficulties they’ve encountered and how
they respond to different spaces. Theatre Consultants Anne Minors and Michael
Holden, and acoustician, Rob Harris respond.
How can the design team of user, architect, acoustician, and theatre design
consultant ensure a more meaningful conversation? What can go wrong? The
gap between permanent building and ever-fleeting performance. Is the voice of
the stage practitioner sufficiently represented?
11:45 – 12:00
12:00 – 13:00
Theatre Technology Tomorrow
Chair: Paule Constable
Panel: Technical Director of the National Theatre, Jonathan Suffolk; Designer: Em
Chapman; Sound Designer: Gareth Fry; Lighting: Rob Halliday, Lighting Control
Manager at the National Theatre, Dan Murfin; Digital: Head of Digital Development
at the National Theatre, Toby Coffey; Theatre Consultant: Peter Ruthven Hall;
Manufacturer: Mark White, ETC Ltd.
What will the NT look like in 2056? In the 1970’s Richard Pilbrow and Dick Brett
dreamt up the Drum Revolve, power flying, and advances in lighting and sound
which impacted British and world stagecraft. Video, virtual reality and other technologies bring new opportunities and dangers. Where are we going and how do
manufacturers help to shape the future?
13:00 – 14:15
13:10 – 14:10
Dorfman Theatre open for visits
The ABTT reserves the right to change the symposium content, timing, or speakers without notice.
Symposium Programme
14:15 – 15:15
A Framework for Freedom
Chairman: Richard Pilbrow
Panel: Iain Mackintosh, Richard Cowell, William Dudley, Jason Barnes, Tim Foster
and Gavin Green.
Theatre architecture provides a framework for performance. What brings theatrical space
to life? The NT’s third space, the Cottesloe, rediscovered a ‘classic’ form: the ‘Courtyard
Theatre’. It combines the intimate and the epic. Its form and flexibility has been imitated
around the world. Three-dimensional theatre, returning audiences to balconies and
boxes that rediscover classic principles of an intimate actor audience relationship,
has impacted theatre architecture everywhere. The panel discuss the international
development of such theatre – and travels from The Mysteries to The Shaughraun.
15:15 – 15:45
15:45 – 17:00
Changing theatres & theatre design?
Chairman: Mark Shenton
Panel: Author: Daniel Rosenthal; Producer: Nick Starr; Director: Lyndsey Turner;
Architects: Patrick Dillon and Fred Pilbrow; Designer: Chloe Lamford; Theatre
Consultant: David Staples.
Changing theatres. The NT theatres have brought an epic scale to British Theatre,
yet the scale of the human performer remains a constant. New ‘fringe’ theatre
spaces seem to nourish a more intimate human experience. Many issues emerge:
what do theatre creators really desire; the role of the theatre design consultant,
permanent architecture versus ephemeral theatre; changing technologies and
audiences. At the NT our ‘lively’ theatre is preserved in concrete. The pros and
cons of landmarking for a changing art form. What will be the impact of video
distribution? Can we find a new audience? The excitement of Lasdun’s public
spaces provide enhanced social and commercial opportunity. The best meeting
place in town? Opportunities for educational outreach?
17:00 – 17:10
17:10 – 18:10
Beating the Drum
A Demonstration of the Drum Revolve, with commentary by those who’ve put
it through its paces. Technology and architecture in the service of theatre.
Chairman: Richard Pilbrow
Contributors: Designer: William Dudley; Stage Manager at the NT, Shane Thom;
Technical Project Manager at the NT, Mylan Lester; Head of Stage Engineering
Automation and Rigging at the NT, Steve Colley; and Kevin Taylor, SVP Global
Head of Automation, Tait Towers.
18:10 - 20:00
Celebration: Happy Birthday to the NT from the World of Backstage!
Four times in less than a century have Britain’s most ambitious attempts to build a theatre fit for Shakespeare and our dream of a National
Theatre been attempted, and four times the results have been dogged with - at best - some controversy. On each occasion warnings about
the chasm between architecture and theatre were sounded. As today’s architecture goes ever more international - now is surely the time for
theatre to speak out louder and clearer about the essence of theatre - communication between human beings - and for true collaboration
between theatre design and architecture. Today, in a rapidly changing world, the nature of theatrical space is yet again being debated.
The deliberations of this Symposium will be filmed, edited and published with extracts included in the forthcoming book: “A SENSE OF
The National Theatre Explored : 1976 - 2016
Olivier Theatre : Random Comments 1976 - 2016
“Sitting in the Olivier auditorium one feels
at the center of more than the National
Theatre… the Olivier is cosmic… theatric
mundi, theatric orbit, theatric vitae humane
(the theatre of the world, global theatre, the
theatre of human life)”
Mark Girouard, Architectural writer
“The Olivier is a difficult theatre to present
plays in, which I suppose is a bit like saying
that you have a watering can that doesn’t
hold water, but [Lasdun] doesn’t want to
discuss it. We work in his building, we know
its problems, and so do the audiences. It’s
an unfocused space: you either leave it bare
or create a form of false proscenium, and
whatever you do the concrete jaws either
side of the stage intrude ostentatiously on
the actors’ space. I don’t of course say all this to Lasdun,
but nevertheless he refers to me as a ‘barbarian’”.
Sir Richard Eyre, National Service, 2003
“Denys was upset about a bad review of Bartholomew
Fair because it said the Olivier Theatre was the culprit
as much as the production. Quite unconcerned about
whether the review would have hurt me, he wanted me
to write and complain about the insult to the architect.
Bill [Dudley] and John [Gunter] and I have been talking
about how to improve the Olivier and Lyttelton - or as Bill
says, ‘how to turn it into a theatre’”.
“There are problems with the Olivier in relation to its
capricious acoustics. I recall discussing this with Albert
Finney, who knows the Olivier stage as well as any actor.
I quoted Peter Brook to him once: ‘A theatre should be a
musical instrument.’ ‘Yes,’ said Albert, ‘and who’d make
a violin out of fucking concrete.’”
Sir Richard Eyre, PLASA 2013
“In Lasdun’s Olivier Theatre no second tier would
overhang the stalls, but the circle would begin where the
stalls left off. Thus in the middle of the 20th century
a theatre was being built where a member of the
audience in the back row of the upper level was further
from the stage than someone in the gallery of Drury
Lane, a theatre built two hundred years earlier.”
Michael Blakemore, Stage Blood: Five tempestuous years in
the early life of the National Theatre
“[Trevor Nunn and I] talk about the difficulty of large
theatres. He tells me that he’s just had a letter from
Denys Lasdun congratulating him on using the Olivier
‘properly’ for his production of SUMMERFOLK. Trevor
says he should write back saying: ‘Thank you. I had
to raise the stage by three feet, move it downstage
by seventeen feet, and cover most of the walls of the
auditorium with black drapes. Apart from that, everything
was as you designed it.”
Interviews with Trevor Nunn, excerpt from: Richard Eyre,
“What Do I Know?”, Nick Hern Books
“Architects think the Olivier is beautiful. And it is. You
will also get actors who say they like it. Standing in the
middle of that stage they feel fantastic. It’s wonderful
because it feels intimate. But the actor plays to the stalls,
the expensive seats, and forgets three quarters of the
theatre. What is so elusive is that nobody quite knows
why they are not having a good time. As Ian McKellen
said, the amount of space the actor has to energize
before he hits the first audience is immense.”
Declan Donnellan and Nick Omerod
“The most difficult space I have worked in is the Olivier.
It strikes me again just how unwieldy a space it is. The
Olivier is cluttered with too much concrete where you
want a space to adapt with the changing dynamic of
different kinds of shows.”
William Dudley, Designer
“The Olivier auditorium could be one of the great
theatrical spaces in the world. Intimacy was a virtual
impossibility in either theatre.”
Simon Callow, The National: The Theatre and its Work, Nick
Hern Books in association with the National Theatre, 1997
“[The Olivier]… a different oddity. If 1,150 people are
sitting there, aware of each other, aware of the epic
nature of the experience… (it is) a greater experience
than watching the same play under the kind of
conditions that bluntly, the aristocracy created for itself
when the public theatres closed down.”
Sir Nick Hytner, The Stage, 17 October 2013
“If you stand on the stage of a “proper” theatre, there is a
circuit of energy flowing out to the audience and back to
the performer again. Here the circuit wasn’t completed.
The energy going out of me did not come back. Instead
of being recharged, like a dynamo, I felt like a battery,
running down.”
Albert Finney, from Peter Lewis, The National Theatre,
A Dream Made Concrete
The National Theatre Explored : 1976 -2016
“It is an exciting, vibrant sort of space, with a certain
magic about it, but it seemed extremely tiring to work in.”
Dennis Quilley, from Peter Lewis, The National Theatre,
A Dream Made Concrete
“The huge sweep of the Olivier is frightening at first sight.
You have nowhere to hide. It’s like a ‘wild animal’ - you
wonder how you’re going to control it. It makes you work
very hard, using the full range of your voice. But when
it’s full of people, it can become almost intimate, unlike
the Lyttleton. That has, none of the contact, physical and
emotional, that you get from a traditional proscenium
theatre. The hardest thing to play there is comedy.”
Acting in the Olivier - An NT Video transcript
“The main thing about the Olivier is that it is very very
large. Actually it’s known to be very tricky. People have
difficulty being heard and understood, but, in fact, if you
get used to it it’s not as bad as it looks.”
Simon Russell Beale, Actor
“You step on the stage and it feels as though it seats
3,000 people - and it only seats 1,200. So there’s an
awful lot of empty air, per member of the audience and
per actor onstage.”
Roger Allam, Actor
Michael Gambon, from Peter Lewis, The National Theatre,
A Dream Made Concrete
Lyttelton Theatre : Random Comments, 1976 - 2016
“One of the most devastating theatrical experiences of
my life… Never before have the Lyttelton’s resources
been so thrillingly exploited.”
Nicholas de Jongh about MACHINAL, October 1993
“The Lyttelton (the proscenium arch space at the
National) is completely flat. There is no curvature, no
attempt to embrace the stage. You are left struggling
to focus the action, not embracing it. It’s like a cinema,
a rectangular room with a stage at one end. The
proportions are inhumane. Designing for the Lyttelton
can be thrilling because of the scale. Most designers
enjoy it. It encourages the production of a tour de force.”
Sir Richard Eyre, Utopia and Other Places, Vintage 1994
“So far as ideal stages are concerned, I think the
Lyttelton is the best stage in the world. The opportunities
it offers, and as a theatrical box of tricks, it’s
Roger Chapman, Making Space for Theatre, 1995
“The Lyttelton has its problems. It is well equipped. But
it is an extremely audience-unfriendly auditorium. The
main problem is that there is no visual or easy aural
connection between the stalls and the circle. You can
sit in either one and not be aware of the other. In the old
Matcham theatres laughter runs round the auditorium
like wildfire because the side boxes conduct it. Those
boxes are crucial. It’s such a pity that the horseshoe and
centuries of experience have been neglected.”
William Dudley, Making Space for Theatre, 1995
“It’s very wide, but there are huge advantages in it
being that wide - a sense of the epic. There’s an issue
- constantly brought up - about how divorced the stalls
and circle are from each other. But it’s quite surprising
how many other theatres have that problem.”
Sir Nick Hytner, The Stage, 17 October 2013
“Somewhat thankless acoustically and rather chilling
from the point of view of ambience.”
Simon Callow, The National: The Theatre and its Work, Nick
Hern Books in association with the National Theatre, 1997
“It was like exchanging a horse-shoe for a shoebox. The
stage felt very wide and the auditorium felt very deep
and I didn’t feel like me at all.”
Albert Finney, from Peter Lewis, The National Theatre,
A Dream Made Concrete
Acting in the Lyttelton - An NT Video transcript
“The Lyttelton is the mystery one, because it’s half way
between the Cottesloe and the Olivier. The Lyttelton
always feels like a cinema. But in terms of technique
from the actor I think the Lyttelton requires as much
as the Olivier, the idea that its somehow slightly easier
because it’s slightly smaller, is actually a lie.”
Simon Russell Beale, Actor
“The problem with the Lyttelton is that you’re playing to
two audiences, because a lot of well designed Victorian
and Edwardian theatres you’re playing to the same
room. But if you sit in the circle in the Lyttelton, you’re
completely unaware of there being anyone in the stalls
at all (laughs) except in a comedy you hear this laughter
coming from somewhere underneath you.”
Roger Allam, Actor
The National Theatre Explored : 1976 - 2016
Cottesloe Theatre : Random Comments, 1976 - 2016
“The Cottesloe is the beating heart of the
Ronnie Mulryne and Margaret Shewring,
The Cottesloe at the National, 1999
“It is beyond argument that, for the
practitioner, the Cottesloe is the most
successful space of the NT’s three auditoria.
It combines the characteristics most sought
by actors and directors: intimacy, good
acoustics, lack of pretension, and flexibility
of staging.”
Sir Richard Eyre, Director since 1988
“An excellent show spoiled by the fact that from the
upper level one could see two thirds of the stage only by
leaning over the rail and the remaining one third not at
all… we object strongly to paying £1.50 each to see only
two thirds of the show and then leave with a crick in the
neck and feelings of vertigo.”
Letter from Alastair Palmer and Maria Caroll to Lasdun,
25 July 1977 Correspondence.
“Cottesloe… continued to be the most flexible and most
communicative of the three venues.”
Simon Callow, The National: The Theatre and its Work, Nick
Hern Books in association with the National Theatre, 1997
“Our favourite space [is] the Cottesloe. The Cottesloe
provides an intimacy (in terms of the distance between
the actor and the audience) and it provides an epic
dimension as well. It’s actually a big stage, and the
nature of the space and its flexibility allows you to use
the theatre in an epic way, but maintaining an intimacy
which we believe theatre absolutely requires.”
“More and more directors want to use the Cottesloe,
often preferring it to the Lyttelton or the Olivier. Its
popularity says as much about theatre architecture as
it does about the current preference for staging even
‘large’ plays in relatively small spaces.”
Sir Richard Eyre, The Cottesloe at the National, 1999
“Unquestionably, directors at the National would much
prefer to do great, intractable classics in the Cottesloe
rather than the other spaces. Most new writing is also
aimed at the Cottesloe. The Cottesloe offers a particular
intimacy. No pause dies. Laughter is infectious and
sustained, whereas in larger auditoria laughter often
dwindles away like water into sand.”
Sir Trevor Nunn, The Cottesloe at the National, 1999
“The Cottesloe makes a designer’s work a pleasure. Its
nature and scale already ‘hold’ performers in a positive
way. The Cottesloe is a strong space. There are tensions
across the space, which derive from its architecture. It
holds its performers in three dimensions, offering
a sculptural space to the designer. “
Alison Chitty, The Cottesloe at the National, 1999
Declan Donnellan & Nick Ormerod, Making Space for
Theatre, 1995
A critic’s comment on the commentaries 2016
“Thank you for this. The psychological effects of architectural space on people
and how they behave in it is endlessly fascinating, The comments you attached
on the NT architecture are terrific, and should be compulsory reading not just for
architects engaged in theatre design, but architects engaged in anything.”
Paul Finch, Programme Director, World Architecture Festival, 5 September 2016.
In memory of Yolande Bird MBE (1920 -2016) an indomitable worker with the National Theatre from 1957 until her retirement
as Board Secretary in 1993. As colleagues knew, the National was the most important factor in her long life.
The National Theatre: A Place for Plays
Symposium Directors
Richard Pilbrow and Paule Constable
For the ABTT
Robin Townley CEO, Mark White & Peter Roberts
Mhora Samuel, Symposium Producer
With thanks to: David Mayo and Isobel Hatton, ABTT Theatre Show; Catherine Cooper Events; New London
Architecture; Little Theatre Guild and OISTAT.
For the National Theatre
Lisa Burger, Executive Director
Jennifer Lunn, Event Production Manager and Co-ordinator
Maisy Wyer, Event Manager
Tineke O’Brien, Head of Commercial Events & Business Development
James Broderick, Box Office & Systems Manager
Christopher Jones, Web Architect
Becky Wootton, Deputy Director of Audiences & Marketing
Jonathan Suffolk, Technical Director
Steve Colley, Head of Stage Engineering Automation and Rigging
Alison Rae, Head of Tours and Visiting
Erin Lee, Archivist
And thanks to all the Front of House and Technical teams and staff at the National Theatre that have played
their part.
In collaboration with and sponsored by
Symposium Programme published by the Association of British Theatre Technicians, 4th Floor, 55 Farringdon
Road, London, EC1M 3JB. Designed by PLASA Media. Printed on FSC certified paper.