A Place for Plays

On Sunday 30 October, the Association of British Theatre Technicians held a symposium to mark the 40th anniversary of the opening of the National Theatre. There were dozens of short presentations, moving from fascinating details of the design process for the National’s building and technical set up 40 years ago, to ideas about future and ideal spaces and new ways of working.

In the opening session, Steve Tompkins (of theatre architects Haworth Tompkins) and Rufus Norris (Artistic Director of the National Theatre) spoke about their collaborations. Tompkins likes to make a 1:25 model of a proposed theatre space because a CGI view offers only a partial impression. He invites designers to look at the model as if it were their own model box, in order to ‘get a glimpse of the future’, the potential use of the space.

According to Richard Pilbrow, Denys Lasdun also organised some ‘theoretical productions’ in model boxes while designing the National Theatre, but there is no evidence of these productions in the archive. (This article by Lisa Nash includes a great photo of discarded model sections for the National Theatre in Lasdun’s model studio.)

Daniel Rosenthal, author of The National Theatre Story,  commented that Lasdun had actually hoped to build a 1:5 mock up of the Olivier Theatre in an aircraft hangar.

Tompkins likes to sketch freehand, paint and work with 3D models. As he is ‘not a digital native’ he merely ‘stands over the shoulder’ of the colleagues who design virtual models. He doesn’t see the virtual models as ‘creative generators’ in the same way as physical models.

The panellists also discussed the increasing use in architecture of software originally developed for gaming. This software allows a client to explore a space, rather than just ‘fly-through’, as is typical with  CAD.

Toby Coffey, Head of Digital Development at the National Theatre, presented the interactive digital storytelling developed to accompany the production of wonder.land amd discussed the potential use of augmented reality in set design. Designs could be projection mapped onto the real space of the stage, and digitally manipulated from the auditorium.

Peter Ruthven Hall of Charcoalblue was excited about 3D printing of props, projection mapping and the potential to use digital paper for costumes, so that imagery would be emitted by a garment, rather than being projected onto it. But he said that craft skills, especially the skills of interpretation, were not disappearing.

Sound designer Gareth Fry spoke of the loss of operator control in the 40 years since the National was built. Sharing aural space with the performers, sound operators could be responsive to live variations, but nowadays ‘fades’ tend to be specified in seconds, rather than by cue words. Devised work demands more fluidity, has to be ‘performer responsive’, and this is more satisfying for the designer-operator.

The discussion considered where the pressure for automation has come from. Is it the consequence of a demand for a precisely replicable performance?

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