Theatre and City

‘In the theatre when plays are given, the spectators, with their wives and children, sit through them spellbound, and their bodies, motionless from enjoyment, have their pores open, into which blowing winds must find their way.’

(Vitruvius Bk V ch2. 1st century BC)

Theatre of Dionysus at Athens 2017

Theatre of Dionysus at Athens 2017 viewed from above

Vitruvius’ description grounds us immediately in the civic human element of performance as part of a healthy life. The theatre is a vital organ of the city – part of the essential civic framework which includes forum, basilica, temples, market place and baths. Its civic function is as a shaper of collective identity and memory, as a way of coming to terms with important events, of giving shape to things that could not be confronted or explored except through performance, in which the whole community create and share experience.

Although the classical theatre is separated from the city by walls it is open to the sky. Performance is enacted under the ever-changing vault of heaven, the same sky as daily life. The horizontal dimension is separated and curtailed, the vertical dimension unenclosed, maintained, and therefore emphasised. Twentieth century theatre was the product of electric light, as its C19 predecessors were the product of gaslight, smoke and mirrors. The development of the modern theatre can be characterised as a gradual transformation from an open air space to a dark box of tricks, an implosion of theatrical space from that of a ritualised real world to a world of illusion and abstraction. Theatrical space has become more and more imaginary. This offers almost total control, at the expense of continuity and context. In recent decades this has been accompanied by a trend towards privatised entertainment, home based, screen based, further collapsing theatrical space into a miniaturised flickering two dimensions.

It is entirely appropriate to have a film studio – the darkest and most introvert space – nestled within the theatrical space. Equally to introduce natural light into the performance space itself, which not only re-establishes the natural vertical, but also offers benefits in environmental sustainability.

Working light can be natural light. The space can be ventilated through stack effect. LED lighting technology this offers the possibility of a low energy non-performance environment, an appropriate model for the twenty first century. To establish contemporary forms for theatre we explore solar technologies – the ability to control diffract, diffuse and store the sun’s energy. In this way performance can tentatively recover its roots in natural light, an become once again a theatre of the sun.

These notes developed from MBA’s submission to Wimbledon School of Art for its theatre project.

April 2006

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