A theatre isn’t a machine for dramatising in…

I always loved the big, shadowy workshop space. It smelled of paint, wood, detergent and instant coffee. It rang with the chippies’ whistles, shouts and frequent jokes. I spent many happy days painting pieces of ply, usually in matt black paint. It was, despite everything, the most unequivocally enjoyable job I have ever had.

I remembered it again recently because I was writing a review of a book by C. Alan Short et al on theatre building processes. Evocatively titled Geometry and Atmosphere, it treats the Belgrade Theatre, my former workplace c. 1985, as one of its case studies. At the time that I was working there as a scene painter, the studio was a tiny little space, whose surfaces I knew very well, since I repeatedly covered the entirety of its walls in fresh paint for each production (including behind the radiators with a formerly mysterious ‘radiator brush’). That studio has now been replaced with the much bigger, fancier Belgrade II. I’m sure this is an improvement, but the memories got me thinking about our material engagement with theatre buildings. This isn’t restricted to scene painters. At those odd moments when I’ve been a performer, I have also spent a lot of time in close contact with floors and ledges. We come to know the buildings with our bodies.

But for me, paint is more fun than acting. When I was working at the Belgrade I used to get more-or-less covered in paint every day. On the grittier productions, the ones involving concrete and walls, I’d get covered in artex as well. We moved up and down in a frankly alarming paint frame and mapped out the backdrops with powdery chalk snap lines.

At panto, there was extra, casual labour, in the form of a hippy art student – let’s call him Bob. No matter what task you set him, Bob painted everything with a teeny tiny brush in fine, fine lines. We had to give him the details to do, even though they were the most fun parts, because he took all day to paint a plank black. Bob was an artist, but he wasn’t a theatre artist. His painting linked eye, hand and line, but he never got his whole body involved.

Scene painters or performers, the theatre is a place we reinvent every time, and the visceral need to muck about with its space is one of the reasons why theatre workers have such a penchant for ruins and dilapidated halls and empty warehouses. It’s often articulated as a desire for flexibility, but this can be misleading. US architect Joshua Prince-Ramus gave a TED talk in 2010, about his work on the Wyly theatre in Dallas. His talk on ‘Building a theater that remakes itself’ was offered with the strap-line: ‘It’s time for architecture to do things again, not just represent things’. Prince-Ramus talks about the problem that although the former home of the Dallas Theatre Company was ‘a horrible little building’, it was also a treasured one.  The very fact of its horribleness meant that you could do anything to it. He suggests that when the director wanted a well in The Cherry Orchard they ‘simply dug the hole’ in the floor. Provided they had the staff, they could reconfigure the space any way they chose and for that reason ‘you could do things you couldn’t do elsewhere’. Such a theatre, he suggests, is a draw for actors.

Prince-Ramus’ solution was to build the ultimate flexible venue. A space that could be reconfigured ‘without relying on operational costs’. Or, in other words, without a crew. A space which changed its layout at the touch of a button. What a dream!

Well, I’m not saying it isn’t a good space, or even that it isn’t a rather amazing space. And probably the Dallas Theatre Company like it very much. But there is a lot of difference between the relationship you have with a theatre where a team of you sweat and shovel and lift and dig out, and the kind you have with a theatre which is rearranged by the fat finger at the controls. The thing is, it’s not just about reconfiguration. It’s about re-invention – and reinvention in the theatre space involves the body and the imagination, just as much as it involves architecture.

I always used to imagine creating theatre in the workshop itself, among the stacks of old flats and the power tools, with the radio crooning into the ceiling’s height. An audience might peep into the next room where the wardrobe ladies chatted and stitched, or sit on the table with us in the staff room, or wind up in the treasure house of the props store, among the telephones, puppets and hat-stands. You could bring a lover there at night, I thought, and make a world for yourselves with the busted sofas and Aladdin’s lamps.

Belgrade II was finally designed as ‘an industrial space for theatre workers to transform’. That makes sense to me. However, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s flexible, so long as it is susceptible to re-imagining. A theatre isn’t a machine for dramatising in. It’s another body, complicit and strange.