With theatre dating back thousands of years to the Bronze Age, the craft of stage design reveals an intricate evolution that reflects not only the varied stories of people throughout history, but also sweeping cultural progress. So where does that leave stage design today, as the modern tech revolution continues to drastically impact our experiences?
Theatre is one of the oldest art forms, shared between ourgenerationand our recent modern ancestors. Persisting throughout the past several thousand years, the continuation of theatre indicates thatstorytellingis, at the most, an innate human pleasure and, at the least, an undying, popular form ofentertainment, where the boundaries between reality andfantasyblur, even if for a short period of time.
Stages, or at least what can be identified as a stage, have taken on greatly diverse formations, reflective of cultures, engineering capabilities and artistic programmes. However, from Greece toIndiaand Japan, stagedesignhas always been committed to the faculties of imagination, creativity and invention. The oldest existing ‘theatrical areas’, located on the island of Crete and dating back to 2000 BC, consisted of L-shaped, open-air spaces built of stone with a rectangular stage; however, during the Hellenistic period, theatres became more ornate, with the raised stage and scene building undergoing radical changes. Later, as the Romans conquered Greek colonies, they encountered Greek theatre design, and applied the Greek theatre model throughout their empire, albeit with notable differences in materiality, scale and covering. One particular element added to theatre design by the Romans was closing them off from the outside world, which was achieved by rearranging spatial heights, further connecting interior spaces and extending roofing structures where needed.
Elsewhere, like in India, the oldest existing stages are similar to the Greek model (although the Sanskrit theatres of India were quite different, and shaped either rectangular, square or triangular). In China, playhouses were built as square or rectangular structures with a small stage at one end covered by a roof.
From the outset, stage design was an engineering feat, particularly as such spaces grew to accommodate audiences of thousands. And more recently, common theatre design worldwide has lent itself to the globalising western typology, typically featuring an end, thrust and arena. But with the advent of radio, film and television, many were quick to quip that theatre was dead. However, what we’ve witnessed in the past century is the opposite: an ever-closing gap between the stage and the audience. As film brought audiences closer to theatrical productions, it also created new priorities for designers who had to reconsider the positioning of architectural elements in a way that translated onto large cinema screens. The notion of the ‘movie set’ too, arrived, branching off of more traditional forms of stage design.
As film entered our homes through television sets, and our hands through smart phones, audiences can now enjoy shows and plays from around the world without having to move even so much as an inch. And this change in dynamic is largely responsible for the ongoing Personal Theatre Revolution.
Perhaps one of the most well-known names in stage design at the moment is British artist and stage designer Es Devlin, known for her work on The Weeknd, Kanye West and Jay-Z’s tour designs; Sam Mendes’ production of The Lehman Trilogy; and most recently, The Brit Awards 2021, which she worked on with British-Nigerian multidisciplinary artist Yinka Ilori.
The Brit Awards 2021 was the largest live event to take place in the UK since the country went into lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The presenter stage consisted of composite recycled plywood modules that were strategically layered and illuminated by LED strips to create the impression of a three-dimensional, multicoloured maze rising up behind the podium. According to Ilori, the use of colour and pattern was one of his and Devlin’s main strategies to interact with people at home watching the ceremony, whose experience of the show were greatly enhanced thanks to film and editing cuts.
“The experience you got when you’re in the audience is different from the experience you get when you’re watching the show at home,” said Ilori. “When you’re at home, you can see all these amazing tricks, cutaways and shots, which are so beautiful. I actually prefer to watch the show from home, because you can see the stage in its entirety,” he said.
As technology continues to advance at unprecedented rates, developments in Internet, artificial intelligence and virtual reality greatly impact all ways of life, changing not only how we receive our experiences but also how we design them for others. One particular example is the pioneering nightclub experience Eschaton, which combines cabaret, immersive theatre and video games, all on Zoom. The project plays between film and design by combining both in their latest forms.
Produced by Tessa Whitehead and Brittany Blum of Chorus Productions, Eschaton’s realisation also relies on the work of engineer Emma Strenshinky, stage manager Kristina Vnook and production designer James Fluhr. Visitors are welcome to explore a series of rooms online where they can experience anything from a burlesque performance to a murder mystery. Positioned at the forefront of the Personal Theatre Revolution, Eschaton shares in many of the benefits of the movement.
“All you need is a laptop and Internet,” said Whitehead. “And an insatiable curiosity is helpful too.”
She added: “Artistically, there is an interesting space being created by personal theatre. Eschaton is a liminal place between intimate and meditative – almost akin to playing a video game like Myst – and interactive and audience-driven. Eschaton also has the element of extreme accessibility, both physically and economically, which affords us a unique and diverse audience.”
According to Fluhr, who goes by the name Memphis Cowboy, the team started with identifying what the Eschaton world felt like, how it operated and what they wanted the audience to feel when they “stepped inside our doors”. He added: “Because our story is also deeply layered and we only have one hour with our audience, we had to engineer where the design needed to tell part of the story versus where it just needed to keep a certain vibe alive and allow other elements to continue the narrative along.
“Each beat from entering our website to finally meeting our performers is crafted to carry you deeper and deeper into our story and therefore our world. And because Eschaton spans web design, video and virtual rooms, we rely on design as a core mechanic that ensures no one gets lost – in the wrong way.”
The main difference between Eschaton and other experiences is that it’s constantly alive – the team never stops making design choices. They strive to be brutally honest with themselves, and readily admit when something no longer works. “To constantly design and throw away is hard, but to watch something continue to live and breathe is worth the reward,” he said.
Experiences like Eschaton are increasing by the minute, as mediums for entertainment become more and more limitless. Just as theatre is no longer restricted to playhouses, film is no longer restricted to the ‘big screen’. Designers and producers alike have to work together to continue meeting the needs of the ever-growing tech-reliant consumer.
“In a world where social shareability can make or break ticket sales, stage and production design has to balance between serving its live audience and serving its digital extended audience,” said Fluhr. “This need is now more real than ever. Audiences want to see what world they are entering, so it is up to the design to seduce them and pull them in from the first visual stimulus.”
The need to ensure that a story stays true while also being able to translate across all necessary mediums is intensifying the pressure on production design, and such ongoing shifts in the industry greatly impact the long relationship between stage design and film. How will technology continue to grant access to shows that are virtual, be used to design a stage that doesn’t exist, or sell tickets to seats that aren’t physical?
“While we will pass our institutional buildings down from one generation to the next, they have proved that they don’t always serve us and have become prohibitive and limiting in their operational costs and structures,” said Fluhr. “Storytelling is an immediate need, a response to culture and society, and it sometimes needs to happen now [instead of] three years from now when the space or structure opens up.
“I truly believe we are at the brink of an experimental theatre and entertainment renaissance where we will see an abundance of new stages being discovered, invented and designed.”
This article was originally published in the Red Envelope series, as part of the fourth journal themed ‘ARCHITECTURE + FILM’. The Red Envelope journals are published byLWK + PARTNERS, and edited by Round City co-founder Rima Alsammarae. They aim to provide knowledge and insight on global urban design for readers interested in architecture, design, development and the built environment.