The architecture of theaters has not evolved much from its traditional designs except for new technological additions to enhance production and performance. According to scholars, most modern theater architectures have their roots from that of the ancient Greek theaters. However, the ambiguity of the meaning of theaters among different cultures as well as on how they are being staged has somehow influenced the development of theater space in different countries across the globe. Over the years, the designs of theatres have been influenced by several factors such as the audience capacity and the purpose to which the theatre is built. This paper will examine the evolution of Western theaters; their historical influences; and how they have developed into the modern theater architecture that is common today.
Ancient Theater Architecture
According to historians, the word ‘theatre’ came from the consolidated Greek word ‘theatron,’ which means viewing (thea) instrument (tron). This definition, however, only refers to the viewing part of the theatre and does not constitute the theatre as a whole. The theatre, on the other hand, as practiced in Ancient Greece, is a dynamic activity which refers not only to the viewing instrument but to the overall infrastructure, performers, audience and production as a whole. In order to cater to theatrical events, theatre architecture in Ancient Greece is built to maximize space without compromising the viewing pleasure. The Greeks, on the other hand, are fond of stage plays. According to scholars, in Ancient Greece, drama takes the form of tragedy which is centered on their reverence for their gods specifically their worship to the Greek god of theatre, Dionysus. Among the first structures to be classified as theatres are found in the island of Crete that dates back to 2,000 B.C.. Accordingly, these structures are “L-shaped, open-air spaces with rectangular stage”. With a grand staircase that can accommodate several audiences, these early theatres have a capacity of 500 audiences although it is still uncertain what particular events or plays are being held in these types of structures. Recorded accounts in Greek history also provide a glimpse of how the Greek theatre architecture has evolved over time. It is believed that the earliest Greek theatres are performed in open areas in market places using portable platforms. The seating arrangements are then temporary and are supported on hillsides for a better view of the stage at the bottom of the hill. Over time, the Greeks built permanent theatres on hillsides not only because of its technical advantage but also because of economic reasons. As observed, “Designers of later Roman theatres made use of hillsides so as to reduce the cost of building substructures”. The Greek theatrical structures have four basic components: the theatron or the auditorium where the audience sits; the orchestra or the stage; the skene or the tent at the back of the stage that is utilized as dressing and storage rooms; and the parodos or the side entrance and exits.
Perhaps influenced by the Greeks, the Romans are also fond of public entertainment and may have adopted the Hellenistic theatre design when they conquered Greek colonies in 343 B.C. and 341 B.C.. It is believed that the initial Roman theatres are built out of wood and are dismantled when a particular festival is over. Due to the enormous extent of the Roman Empire, their plays and theatres are viewed by huge audiences making it necessary for them to create huge structures to accommodate these enormous spectators. The Romans have also modified the Greek theatre designs. Instead of having side entrances, Roman theatres closed off their theatres and compressed the separate structures of the auditorium; the orchestra; and the backstage into one united structure. The Romans have also built these structures on level ground and have added several stage technologies to further enhance their plays and events. The stage, for example, is elevated; has a roof covering and provided with front and back curtains. Some Roman amphitheaters are also known to have elevators, moving platforms and trapdoors.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the theatres were abandoned although stage plays were still performed by traveling bands of entertainers such as clowns, actors and musicians. For 500 years since 476 C.E., the theatre as performed in coliseums and other permanent structures are virtually dead in the Western societies where Catholicism has gained a foothold since the Catholic Church opposed secular plays. For the same reason, plays are often held in private courtyards and other secret locations. However, the Church was also responsible for the revival of the theatre when it began to perform biblical dramas in outdoor stages. During the middle Ages, religious plays dominate the theatres of western societies. These plays are held in portable stages that have wheels and can be moved from town to town. The revival of the Greek and Roman theatre came during the Renaissance. Also known as the cultural reawakening, the renaissance greatly influenced the revival of the formal theatre in Europe. However, instead of holding theatrical plays in open areas, theatres architectures have taken the form of roofed buildings. Indoor theatres sprang up in Europe during the Renaissance with enhanced special effects and features. The stage, for example, makes use of scenic elements of perspective to convey a more realistic scene. Backdrops, a large expanse of cloths that are painted with sceneries, were also introduced in renaissance theatres. Lighting techniques as well as other props are also used to enhance the audience’s experience.
The Modern Theatre Design
The different types of plays and events may influence the type of theatre building’s architecture. As observed, “A theatre may house drama, classical or popular music, opera, musicals, ballet, modern or folkloric dance, cabaret, circus, or any activity where a performing artist communicates with a living audience”. In the modern era, theatre design has evolved from the classical open-air theatres to several incredible forms of theatre architecture that are being built today. Adopting most of the Greek and Roman theatres, among the major types of theatre architecture that emerged and defines most of the modern theatre today are the proscenium or picture-frame theatre; the arena; the thrust or open theatre; the studio; and the multiform theatre. The proscenium or picture-frame stage is one of the most common forms of modern theatre designs. In this type of configuration, the audience looks into the performance through a rectangular opening as if the audience is looking through a picture-frame. The auditorium slants to provide greater visibility for the audience although the auditorium does not necessarily have to be circular. Large drama theatres are often performed in prosceniums. Arenas, on the other hand, are theatrical designs where the audience completely surrounds the stage. This particular design is often utilize in staging plays and sporting events where a 360 degrees view is desired. The thrust stage, as its name suggests, is a type of theatre where the stage is projected towards the audience. The audience surrounds the stage on three sides, resembling that of a classic Roman theatre. Several thrust theatres were constructed in the United States such as the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in Chicago, Illinois and The Playhouse in Madison, Wisconsin. Studio type theatres, on the other hand, are flexible theatres that can be reconfigured into different forms of views. Accordingly, “The main floor can usually be reconfigured into arena, thrust, endstage, and flat floor configurations”. Specialized forms of theatre architecture has also emerged such as the recital hall, which is believed to be a descendant of the renaissance court music hall and the concert hall, which features multiple audience levels and a semi thrust stage type. Multipurpose theatres, on the other hand, are becoming more common in small and medium cities in the United States and elsewhere around the world because of their flexibility. Multipurpose theatres are designed to accommodate many types of theatrical functions such as “symphonic music, opera, musical theatre, ballet, and touring production”. Examples of such are the Bill Heard Theatre and the Belk Theatre in the U.S. The modern theatre architecture does not necessarily conform to any conventions. As observed, the modern theatre is often a combination of the several types of theatre architecture and designs.
It is interesting to note how the modern theatre architecture has been greatly influenced by ancient Greek and Roman theatres. As observed, the major elements of Greek and Roman theatre designs has survived and has been adopted in most modern theatres around the world most especially in western theatres. It is also worth noting that the evolution of theatre design has been influenced by several factors such as the audience capacity and most especially by the type of play or event that the theatre caters. For every event, a specialized type of theatre may be more appropriate. However, because of practicality, most modern theatres follow a multi-purpose architecture so that it can cater to different events and plays. In conclusion, it can be deduced that the evolution of theatre architecture does not necessarily stops or reaches a dead end but rather, theatre design is as dynamic as the plays and events that it caters.
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