Leaving the building

Theatre scholar Rustom Bharucha’s talk on ‘Theatre and the Corona Virus’ comments ironically that New York’s ‘The Shed’, designed by Diller & Scofidio to be ‘permanently flexible for an unknowable future’, is not proof against this pandemic.* I’ve always been a bit sceptical of theatre buildings with designed-in flexibility, as I suggest in my blog of 2012, where I suggest the creative question is not so much one of architectural reconfiguration but of a space’s capacity for being re-imagined – which definitely is not the same thing. The Shed takes its inspiration from Cedric Price’s unrealised ‘Fun Palace’, itself seemingly inspired by Constant Nieuwenhuys’ unrealised ‘New Babylon’, which was conceived as a city for endless re-fashioning and drift. The principle is beguiling, and has inspired actual buildings such as the Pompidou Centre in Paris, or the cutting edge work of Rem Koolhaas. However, I’d argue that these environments are too assertive in their use of transparent/translucent materials, designedly flexible technologies, and modernist-inspired identity to be really open to artists and audiences who might make them into something else. One can imagine the artist standing forlornly at whatever passes for an entrance, looking across the street and longingly contemplating the creative potential of a dinged-up bus shelter.

This idea of porous and flexible space has a long history and has recurred in ideas around theatre building. There’s often seemed to be a mismatch between democratic ideals and crystalline, hi-tech design, assertive dominance of a city scape and often high ticket and/or refreshment prices. However, the very question of porosity takes on a new meaning now. We need air to circulate. We need to occupy space in smaller numbers and with more metres between us. The amphitheatres of 5th century Athens look more viable than the Shed does now. The Minack was set to open before the National Theatre (the link is to their web-cam, a lockdown self-indulgence). Open air theatres are having something of a renaissance, though it is pushing it to say that open air theatres are ‘booming’.

Stufish Entertainment Architects have come up with a new design for pop-up, large-scale outdoor venues with their ‘Vertical Theatre’ Can’t help thinking how reminiscent this is of Shakespeare’s Globe…a theatre which, when it opened, suddenly made London audiences aware of how the elements might play into the experience of a performance. However, the limited capacity Covid requires of the London Globe means it cannot afford to re-open, potentially raising the question as to whether outdoor theatre is as democratic and accessible as some claim it to be.

However, we might need to think completely differently. To ask, not for the first time, whether a theatre is necessary for theatre. There is a difference between an open air venue and theatre in the open air. Inevitably, I turn towards the site-based performance and land art that has always eschewed the conventions of the theatre building.  Theatre at the scale of landscape, theatre in a series of connected times, theatre taking place as a constellation of connected sites, theatre as invisible action and trace, theatre as journey… when do dispersed bodies become communities? When do disparate times become a single moment of the live?

In a recent conference on the future of theatre, Athena Stevens from ‘Freelancers Make Theatre Work’ asserted powerfully that ‘freelancers can make viable work now’. The work of freelance artists does not preclude innovative new theatre buildings, but it might precede them.

* at least not for live performance, though it is currently open as an exhibition space.

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