Do you write about architecture?

As you may know I study architecture at Aarhus School of Architecture. It so happens that we have to write essays every blue moon. I’m on my third semester and this is the second essay I had to write. So not a lot of writing is happening here! But we had to hand in a 2000-3000 word essay on any architecture related topic we wanted to write on.

Anyways I thought that some of my family members and friends (who I know read the blog sometimes) might be interested in a seak-peak into what I do at school. So I’m going to post my essay here.

As I write this post I don’t know what my marks are on this. So I can’t say of its any good, but here you have it 🙂

,The essay is looking at the Playhouse in Copenhagen and how the auditoriums allow and constrict different performances. The pictures included in this post are the same I included in the essay I handed in. None of the pictures are mine. The diagrams are mine but not the pictures.

 

The Playhouse

With the opening of the Playhouse in 2008, the Royal Danish Theatre got their first building dedicated to the spoken theatre, after 100 years of sharing spaces made for other disciplines. Placed on Kvæsthusmolen across the Inner Harbor from the Opera, the Playhouse marks the end of a rather large rearrangement of the Royal Danish Theatre.

Placed centrally between Nyhavn and the Little Mermaid on Langeline, the Playhouse is a natural stop for tourists, which has transformed the Inner Harbor to a cultural hub.

With the Playhouse’s 20.000m2 more than half of this area is for the employees of the theatre only. This includes a great back stage area with a rehearsal stage, a side stage, back stage plus room for prop and set storage with access to all three performance stages.

This essay tries to highlight some of the ways the architecture of the Playhouse help the production and experience of various plays. The essay will start in the foyer, then move on to both the main stage and the smaller stage formerly known as the Red Room now called Mellemgulvet (throughout the essay it will be mentioned as the Red Room as most of the plays included to highlight the architectural space was performed in the Red Room).

The Foyer

The foyer and the promenade is a public space where people can get information on future plays, buy tickets and visit the café in the southeast corner. With large sliding doors the glass façade can be opened creating a gradient threshold between in and out.

The foyer also offers a space for smaller concerts, talks and performances that are like the foyer itself open to the public.

The foyer poses the first place where the director can stage the performance, this can happen conventionally with posters and programs. Big posters on the exterior of the building will be the first thing the audience sees upon arriving to the theatre and thus they do play I vital role in the staging of the audience.

LED liana lights hanging from the celling usually light the foyer, but the dark walls makes it possible for the director to have different colored lights, affecting the mood of the audience to reflect the mood of the performances.

The director relies on the space to put the audience in the right mindset before they enter the performance space, so that they are ready to believe the story about to be played for them. Here the architecture plays a crucial role, as I will now dive into.

The relationship between the audience and the performance already starts when the audience arrives to the Playhouse. When walking up the promenade you are able to see the wardrobe of the actors. The forth floor houses actors wardrobes, cafeteria and administration, has a glass facade running all the way around the building on this floor, giving the audience an opportunity to have a little sneak peak of the evening’s happenings before they even enter the playhouse, meaning the magic already starts outside.

Through the large windows in the foyer the audience overlooks the lights of the harbor, while the lighting in the foyer (long LED lianas) imitates a starry sky. These factors are all important to create a magical atmosphere, with the purpose of putting the audiences in the right frame of mind to be submerged in the performance experience. The LED lianas also contribute to making the rather big foyer space smaller and more intimate. The audience is to feel safe and content in the foyer area of the theatre and be shocked and provoked in the auditorium.

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The foyer is tiled in the same dark brick used on the outside.  The dark color of the walls imitates the classic theatrical instrument of dark walls. This stages the audience while they find themselves in the foyer, usually before the performance and during the intermission. This is most obviously done in the dark walled bathroom where the mirrors are surrounded by eight big light bulbs referencing to classic theatre make-up mirrors. This relates the audience to the actors, having them “step into the shoes” of the actors as they move around outside the auditoriums, expanding the experience of a play.

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The Main Stage

From the foyer the audience can enter the main stage, which is placed in the middle of the building emphasizing its importance in the architecture. The Main stage can be entered from the ground floor as well as the first.

The main stage seats 650 people spaced on a floor plan in two levels and two balconies. The auditorium is circular and cave-like in shape so the audience is a maximum of 20 meters from the stage edge. The Scene Tower is placed over Main stage and is a crucial part of any big theatrical production. This tower is where curtains, sets and lights can be raised and lowered during a performance. The Playhouse scene tower is covered in copper to reflect the materiality of its surroundings. The stage it self is a multipurpose stage that can rotate, be raised or lowered, be surrounded and much more in an attempt at giving the directors as much creative freedom as possible.

To highlight the relationship between the performance and the space I will look at some past performances showing how the use of set, entrances and light has been set up by the production team and how it effects the relationship on the audience.

Because of the stage’s form and the fixed seating all performances have taken place with the audience placed in front of the proscenium, the seats are fixed no more than 20 meters form the stage edge making sure the audience can hear and see the actors and their facial expressions while also making the grand cave-like room a bit more intimate.

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From the seats most to the right and left of the stage the audience are able to look into the wing of the stage. This is the case with any proscenium theatre and dates all the way back to the Greek amphitheater, thus the director must block off the entrances or redirect the attention of the audience in a way so they won’t look back-stage, yet the actors can still enter the stage. This has been dealt with in various ways; in Gengangere from 2012 the set was so spares and the lighting so intense that the focus of the audience was easily kept on the characters, thus entering and exiting could happen undisturbed without much coverage of the entrances. The actors never left the stage in Woyzeck (from 2014), they simply stepped of the rotating stage and stood out to the side. Clearly entering and exiting the story as they step on or off the rotating stage. In Ødipus and Antigone the actors also never left the stage. When “off stage” they joined the choir in the back.

The placement of the audience can be an advantage to the director and actors, as things or people can be hidden form view in the wings, side- and back-stages. Sets don’t have to be fully three dimensional to convey depth. While this is true there have been both productions with next to no set like Gengangere and Woyzeck as well as performances with full sets like Kollektivet form 2012 where the entire play took place in a 70’ies apartment living-room, or in Frankenstien Genskabt form 2013 which had some of the most amazing set work seen in Denmark, here elaborate sets were hoisted up and down to change the setting. The audience, among other things, bared witness to a man hanging him and a woman being run over by a train on stage.

One especially interesting set was that of Hærværk in 2013 where the revolving stage housed a man’s life. The rotating of the stage reflecting how he felt stuck in his life and routine, while at the same time giving the performance movement and pace. For the audience this meant they were able to see things the protagonist weren’t because they took place in another room. The audience also felt stuck in a hamster wheel, like the protagonist, who can’t seem to escape. The stage might turn when the audience just wanted to see more of one space and story, making the play just a bit more life like as the audience must accept that they can’t know and see everything.

The back wall of the main stage is broken up into angled sections tiled in the same stones as the rest of the playhouse, but in here they are laid in a relief that makes the reverberation time exactly 1 second. This is perfect for talking theatre.  If this for some reason isn’t enough to make the acoustics perfect a flexible system of horizontal slats can be mounted in the balustrade on the balcony front. Although the theatre is perfect for spoken word the incorporation of music has been seen to work very well in this space as well, for instant in the play Omstigning til Paradis from 2015 where the drummer Kalle Mathiesen supplies the background sound of the actors emphasizing the feelings the characters feel, affecting the audience so they themselves feel the same build-up as the characters.

The Red Room

The Playhouse offers two Black-box/studio stages. Mellemgulvet, or the Red Room as it was also know, a flexible room that seats 200 people and can be opened up on the north façade to create a outdoors performance on Kvæsthusmolen.

The other is Small Stage that seats 100 people and usually has room for more experimental performances. This essay looks at Mellemgulvet/the Red Room .

To enter the Red Room, which is placed out to the side of the building protruding the basic from of the theatre as if it was being twisted out, the audience has to walk along a corridor that also leads to wardrobes and restrooms.

As the room itself offers little to restrict the director, they can do mostly anything they want in regards to seating arrangements. They can choose where and how much space is stage and how the seating surrounds it. When looking at past performances it becomes clear however that the typical set up with a stage in front of an audience that aligned to it, very similar to the seating arrangement on the floor plan of the Main Stage. The play Revolver triologien from 2012 has the stage in a corner and the audience surrounds this corner, and the play Drømmeforstillinger from 2016 had the audience along three of the walls, all other performances mentioned here has traditional seating.

The space is smaller than a proscenium theatre and isn’t necessarily suited for big sets. Traditionally Black-box or Sudio theatre has less elements on stage and the success of a performance lies solely on the actors. This is very evident in performances like Metamorphose from 2014 where the set was covered in gray tarpaulin and a beam holding florescent lamps was lowered, the performance incorporated black paint and became a living painting.

Because of the dark walls and little decoration in these spaces the director has the possibility to play with the lighting and the effects that can create. There is also the possibility of “mixed media” performances mixing video mapping, lighting and theatrical performances offering the audience a new experience.

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Macbeth from 2013 had black reflective flooring and big screens showing a skull or what looks like the Scottish flag while the performance was taking place in front. The play Med Sne from 2017 had no set alt all, the space and context of the play was defined by projections on the floor from an overhead projector. These projections could be a brain scan, snow like you find on TV or simply a color reflecting the mood of the play. When there is no set or props to hide behind the experience of the characters and their feelings can be more powerful, but the audience also relies much more on the actors’ abilities to act and convince them.

What a smaller room like The Red Room does allow for is audience participation. The scale of the room and the amount of people it holds are far less than the Main Stage where audience participation is rather hard to do. In the recent performance Terror from 2017 the set is a courtroom, here a solider stands trial for taking down a passenger airplane. Everyone in the audience is  given a remote with a guilty and a not guilty button on. When the lawyers have given their statement and the play is over the cast leaves the “jury” (the audience) to discuss the ethics of the situation (microphones were passed around for the audience to share their views) and they then voted whether the man was innocent or not. This form of audience participation encourages the audience to think for themselves about the questions posed by the play. It is however also a very intense and for some a very uncomfortable feeling to be asked very ethical questions in the way they did here.

Not only would this not be possible in the main auditorium from an organization perspective, the size of the space and distance form the action on stage would not make the experience intense enough.

The more confide space of the Red Room intensifies the emotions portrayed by the actors, without help from lights and music, being yelled at from a 1 meters distance is far more effective than being yelled at from 7 meters.

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The performances in these two spaces might not be so different in style. Yet the different sizes of the rooms make a huge difference in how they are directed as to reach the audience. Performances such as Frankenstein Genskabt and Hærværk wouldn’t have worked on a smaller scale than the Main Stage, the sheer magnitude of the set wouldn’t allow for it. On the other hand would performances like Kældermennesket, Med Sne and Terror not have worked in a bigger space than the Red Room, the intensity and emotion of the characters’ world wouldn’t translate and reach the audience had the room been bigger.

The possibilities of the auditoriums haven’t yet been fully explored. But on the other hand the performances put on in all three spaces have so far been successful. It will be interesting to see if future performances will rethink the seating and audience participation in the smaller auditoriums or make use of the possibility to surround the stage in the Main auditorium, and how this will effect the space and audience.