When William Shakespeare and his company first set up shop on the south side of the Thames to produce plays in the Globe Theatre, the 16th century was just ending, and the requirements for what had only recently begun to be called “a theatre” were fairly simple.
Today, as the 21st century gets underway, two of Washington, DC's most prominent Michaels — Michael Keiser, president of the Kennedy Center, and Michael Kahn, artistic director of Washington's celebrated Shakespeare Theatre Company — have sparked a city-wide Shakespeare festival with theatres, symphonies, ballets, operas, art galleries, and an eclectic mix of cultural institutions ranging from the American Film Institute to the Bead Museum, all looking back at what the bard has wrought.
One institution, however, is looking forward. The National Building Museum, a private, non-profit institution, chose to participate in the festival by commissioning a number of architects and designers to look at the latest design concepts and apply them to the theatre of the future, specifically to the works of Shakespeare.
While keeping faith with what one segment of the resulting exhibit calls “the essence of Globeness,” designers came up with proposals that challenge some of the fundamental aspects of modern venue design while expanding the concept of the modern theatre.
The most high tech of the five concepts comes from John Coyne of Theatre Projects Consultants (TPC) with A New Global Theatre. Coyne, a licensed architect, is not only director of design for TPC, he's a scenery and costume designer who is no stranger to Washington. In 2004, he designed the set for Kahn's staging of Macbeth. Coyne uses some of the sketches from that production in his presentation of a concept for a theatre in the round where “the round” refers to “the globe” — as in the whole round world!
Using innovations in instantaneous electronic communication, Coyne envisions a means by which audiences and artists in different places can interact on a single performance. He came up with a fairly simple modular audience/stage/display structure that could be duplicated in multiple locations and then linked through “live streaming.”
A performance of Macbeth might involve an actor playing the title role on a stage in one city while his Lady Macbeth would be an actress on an identical stage in another city. With large video screens showing each, and with audience reactions similarly conveyed, interactions could be experienced in real time.
Coyne isn't the only architect with set design experience invited to submit concepts for the exhibit. Also invited was David Rockwell, whose set design for the Broadway musical Legally Blonde is about to be loaded into the Palace while his exploding Hairspray aerosol bottle continues to shower audiences with streamers at the Neil Simon. His idea? A transparent theatre.
Rockwell and his group came up with a structure that is open to allow spectators to see the world outside at the same time anyone outside can see in. Actually an assembly of scaffold-like modules, the circular structure is a see-through three-tiered affair suggesting, if not so much as resembling, the original Globe with its three levels.
Because it is modular, Rockwell's Transparent Theatre could be assembled almost anywhere. The exhibit includes illustrations showing one in Central Park, New York, and another in Red Square, Moscow.
Jennifer Siegal's Office of Mobile Design in Venice, CA, takes the idea of a theatre that can be transported anywhere to even greater lengths with Globetrotter. She wants to revive the tradition of traveling theatrical troupes with a “mobile, modular vehicle able to transform into a fully equipped theatre,” bringing new meaning to the old term “bus and truck tour.”
Her structure, or trailer, is only 12'×50' but contains all the elements necessary to assemble a facility with a stage the size of the original Globe — wings, backstage areas, seats, dressing rooms (with toilets, sinks, and showers), and even pneumatic seating. With solar cells on the roof to power sound and lighting, and even LED panels to advertise the shows, it provides a modern classical theatre version of an itinerant troupe.
Taking the show on the road isn't confined to trailers, at least not in the vision of the team combining talents and thoughts from Hugh Hardy's H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture and The Public Theatre that Joe Papp founded some 50 years ago. With Papp's original mobile theatre that took Shakespeare to parks in every borough of New York City as their inspiration, the group came up with the Global Theatre in Following Joe Papp.
It's two theatres, actually. One would be a 750-seat courtyard theatre built in Times Square. The second would be a floating replica of the same theatre, which could be towed to waterfronts in all five boroughs. Both feature exterior walls using variable opacity glass so that views of the surrounding areas would be available as the audience awaits the performance. Instead of the house lights dimming to signal the start of a performance, the walls would darken to shut out exterior light.
The most abstract design — and least likely to actually be turned into concrete — is also the most visually striking in the exhibit. In Playrites, Florence, Italy-trained but Los Angeles-based Michele Saee thought of tracking the movements of the actors in performance and using a computer program to combine them into something akin to a physical representation of the kinetics of a play.
Combining the readout from sensors attached to actors portraying Romeo, Tybalt, Mercutio, and others — sensors that tracked movement along both “x” and “y” axes — the “interactions (are) translated into the physical space of the theatre.” The exhibit includes slides of those sensor tracks and a model of a possible resulting performance space.
Over time, however, the focus seems to have shifted to more modern facilities that retain some touch of the heritage that now stretches back through four centuries. The exhibit planners came up with the appropriate term for this: They have a section on “The Essence of Globeness” that focuses on modern projects. These include the Festival Theatre built in 1957 for the Stratford Festival in Ontario, the successful Shakespeare's Globe built in 1997 in London, and even The Ice Globe, which was an attraction at The Ice Hotel more than 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden. It was built in 2003, and as the exhibit notes, melted that same year.
Of most interest is a model of the proposed New Globe Theatre, which supporters want to build inside the courtyard of Castle Williams, the 1807 fort on Governors Island in New York Harbor that has been much in the news of late. The model of Foster and Partners' design shows the modern theatre within the circular fort covered by a modern glass roof.
The idea of a new Globe Theatre is not really new, of course. Indeed, the exhibit includes a survey of past efforts to research just what the original Globe was really like and to construct replicas or devise new Globe-like theatres. Photos of many of the replicas built for World's Fair-type exhibitions throughout the 1930s testify to the fascination the old Globe has retained through the centuries.
Just blocks from the museum housing the exhibit, concrete is already being poured on an additional space for Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company. The Sidney Harman Hall, slated to open this October, is not artistic director Kahn's attempt to recreate a Globe for his troupe. Instead, it is a chameleon of a hall, capable of four different configurations for use as a thrust theatre, proscenium space, an open stage, and even an intimate musical concert space ideal for recitals. The design team for Sidney Harman Hall consists of AJ (Jack) Diamond of Diamond and Schmitt Architects Incorporated from Toronto, theatre consultant Joshua Dachs of Fisher Dachs Associates of New York City, and acoustician Rick Talaske of the Chicago-based Talaske Group, Inc.
The exhibit includes a computer-generated video showing how the space converts from one configuration to another, as well as a sample of the acoustic paneling system developed for the hall. The hall will be a four-story, sound-isolated block weighing some 8 million pounds within an 11-story office building.
Visitors to Washington can step into those possible futures by stepping back in time a bit. The exhibit is on the second floor of the building that now houses the National Building Museum, a building that became known as “The Pension Building” with its surrounding frieze of Civil War soldiers and its central atrium that hosted inaugural balls for presidents from Grover Cleveland to George W. Bush. It was built after the Civil War (the US one, not any of the conflicts Shakespeare chronicled) to serve as the offices of the program to provide pensions for US veterans.
Brad Hathaway is the editor/reviewer for Potomac Stages, a website and email service covering theatre in Washington, Maryland, and Virginia (www.PotomacStages.com) and co-hosts the television show Just Theatre. He has covered theatre for Theatre.Com, Musical Stages Online, Show Music Magazine, The Connection Newspapers, The Hill Rag, and DC North. He can be reached by email at Brad@PotomacStages.com.
A Shakespearean Theatre for the 21st century is on display through August 27 at the National Building Museum, 401 F Street NW in Washington, DC. The museum is open 10am to 5pm Monday-Saturday and 11am to 5pm Sundays. Admission is free. For further information, call 202-272-2448 or log on to www.nbm.org.