Author: Dachs, Joshua
Date published: March 1, 2012
THROUGH A DENSE FOG, THE LAST UGHT OF evening faded away through an enormous window high on the back wall. Jarring atonal music filled the room as, out of the fog, a troop of soldiers in J9th-century uniforms appeared, marching determinedly toward us along a narrow runway. Soon other characters followed: a young woman, her parents, a baker. As they approached, the bank of seats that we 900 spectators occupied began to glide slowly forward to meet them - then, astonishingly, to move past them, as they marched into a tunnel through the middle of the raked platform. At the far end of the space, lights came up on a domestic scene, where two initial scenes of the opera were sung. the bank of seats began to retreat, revealing new furniture, new scenes, on the 200-foot-long runway, gradually leaving a trail of empty furniture and desolate characters in its wake, as if the past were always still there, still visible: memory made tangible. Advancing and retreating, we watched the opera - Die Soldaten, by German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann, directed by David Pounrney - unfold sometimes in close-up, sometimes in long-shot. The performance took place in July 2008, and the space was the Park Avenue Armory in New York City. The experience was unforgettable.
The Armory is not a theatre, at least not in any traditional sense. Built on Park Avenue between 66th and 67th streets in the late 1870s, it was created to house New York State's Seventh Regiment of the National Guard, originally a privately funded volunteer militia raised during the Civil War. This so-called Silk Stocking regiment was comprised of the sons of New York City's wealthiest Gilded Age families: Harrunans, Livingstons, Stewarts, Roosevelt«, Van Rensselaers and Vanderbilts. The Armory takes up an entire city block. Most of the building is the Drill Hall, an enormous 55,000-square-foot space roofed with 11 arched fret-work trusses soaring to 65 feet, punctuated with bands of clerestory windows like a 19th-century European train shed. Intended as both a military facility and a social club, the armory was designed by a coterie of the best decorative arts designers and craftsmen of the period, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Stanford White and the Herter Brothers among them.
The production of Die Soldaten took advantage of the Drill Hall's enormity. But it also benefited from the inevitable resonance between the opera's story and the building's own military past, its patina of time, and its extraordinary texture and design. Since then the space has been used for other productions - Ariane Mnouchkine's Les Ephémères, Declan Donnellan's Russian-language production of Pushkin's Boris Godunov, the last performance of Merce Cunningham's dance company before it disbanded.
Why perform in a place like the Armory? The space certainly doesn't seem to lend itself to theatrical production-, it has none of the normal stuff you expect to find in theatres - dressing rooms, rigging equipment, lighting systems, to say nothing of seats. What is it about this place that is drawing artists from around the world to perform there, in spite of the difficulty and expense? Is it part of a trend or just a puzzling aberration? Is this some new kind of theatre? And what's wrong with ¿proper theatre, anyway?
The Armory stands in marked contrast with die abstracted neutral space of the ubiquitous black box, which I wrote about recently in these pages. The Armory's power is in what underlies some of today's most intriguing performance spaces - it's the power of place itself.
The production of Die Soldaten at the Armory originated in 2006 at the Ruhrtrienmale, a festival of drama, dance, opera, music, literature and film held annually in Bochum, Germany, from August through October, Bochum is in the heart of the German "Rust Belt," once the center of the coal-mining and steel industry, and now dotted with massive industrial complexes that are no longer in use. Enlightened political leadership and the amazing beneficence of the German state have led to the preservation and transformation of dozens of these complexes for public use. In nearby Essen, for example, the massive, 1 65-year-old Zollverein coal mining and processing complex has been preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage site, its dozens of buildings converted into museums, galleries, an art school and an open-air park where 800,000 visitors a year tour the carefully preserved industrial components.
The Bochum home of the Ruhrtrienniale is the Jahrhunderthalle, a complex of buildings, pipelines, cooling towers and water chases that once housed a massive gas-powered electrical generating plant serving the surrounding coal and steel works. Three enormous steel buildings, now emptied of their turbines and modified to accommodate visitors and a complement of up to 300 cast, crew and musicians, are booked most of the year for trade fairs, banquets and corporate meetings. But each summer its three main hails are occupied by the festival's music, dance and theatre performances. Pountney's audacious production concept for Die Soldaten - an authence traveling on railroad tracks - was inspired by (and made possible by) the extraordinary 430-foot length of JahrhunderthalJe's Hall One (and its generous funding arrangement: only a small percentage of the festival's costs are covered by box office income; the rest comes from local and national government appropriations).
This notion, that a particular place can permit or provoke an artist to do something that can't even be imagined anywhere else, is one of the most compelling arguments for non-traditional performance space - the ability to take advantage of a specific place, with its own special characteristics to help tell a story in a unique and compelling way.
Peter Latz, a landscape architect who played a large role in turning brown-field industrial wastelands in the Ruhr Valley into cultural amenities, says the notion, of memory played a key role in his work - not in the sense of strict preservation, but to remind us of the transience of life, and of how the echoes of the past, however distant, can still influence us today. This idea, simple and profound, has obvious application to theatre. It lies at the heart of today's interest in found places and nontraditional venues for performance.
BOTH THESE ASPECTS OF PLACE- POSSIBILITY AND memory - are what drew two acclaimed artists to the spaces with which they are most closely associated. Ariane Mnouchkine's company, Théâtre du Soleil, has worked for decades in a former munitions factoty outside Paris called the Cartoucherie, in a sort of swords-intoplowshares turn of fate that now has an analog in the Armory. Peter Brook, of course, has the Bouffes du Nord in Paris, but he is also responsible for a series of spaces created for the 1987 tour of his production of The Mahahharata - the Tramway Theatre in Glasgow, a former tram-maintenance building, and the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music were thankfully both left in its wake.
Many other venues have been created in industrial buildings. In Amsterdam, a former gasworks called Westergasfabriek houses contemporary performance, cafes and cinema. In Zurich, the Schiffbau Theater-Und Kulturzentrum, once part of a shipyard, is now home for theatre and film events. The Roundhouse in London, once part of a railroad engine-switching facility, has a long history of performance ranging from Jimi Hendrix concerts to residencies by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Whatever their particular story, these buildings are marked by life. Their very bricks the product of countless hands, their scars and imperfections stand like wrinkles on an ancient face, testament to endurance, perseverance, perhaps grace, and the passage of time. They provide a rich palimpsest of memories and associations that overtly or subliminali)' attach themselves to the performances we share in them.
While it isn't a reconfigurable theatre, the Harvey at BAM is a perfect example of the role that a powerful place can play in performance. After years of abandonment and decay, this 1904 playhouse was cleaned, modified and preserved in a state of "arrested decay" in order to accommodate the Mahahharata tour. The stage was raised nearly a floor level and then extended out into the auditorium to meet what had been the mezzanine. Several rows were demolished in the balcony. The original stage area, behind the proscenium arch, is now coupled ro a deep apron extending out into the auditorium, level with the new first row of sears. Scenes can be played either in a traditional way behind the arch or out in the house in the middle of the embracing curve of the authence, just as at the Bouffes du Nord.
Brook's nine-hour Mahahharata told the ancient Hindu story of an epic struggle between two families, both the offspring of gods and kings. The entire stage floor was covered in packed earth. A "river" ran across the stage left to right next to the back wall. Candles floated in a pool of water dug into the earthen floor out on the apron. The bare openings flanking die stage (once ornate seating boxes whose railings and ornament were demolished to accommodate Cinemascope movies) nowheld musicians playing drums, flutes and finger cymbals. The theatre itself, with its scarred wall surfaces and missing bits of plaster, felt enormously old, like some archaeological fragment, intriguing and suggestive. Your imagination began to fill in the missing details, matching mem to your expectations of the recent past, but also somehow to the ancient time in which the story was set. Everything about the theatre seemed to resonate in sympathy with the performance, energizing both. It was hard to imagine that any other production could be so well matched to this extraordinary place.
The next show at the Harvey was Brook's production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, staged on a large oriental carpet extending into the auditorium, with just a few pieces of furniture. The play is about the decay of an entire way of life: the privileges of former serfholding aristocrats giving way to a new reality of free, entrepreneurial peasants, and Russian feudalism giving way to capitalism. It is full of nostalgia, with an undercurrent of anger. The crumbling ornaments, the broken -plaster cornices and half-missing column capitals of the Harvey seemed to perfectly mirror the theme; a faded, perhaps even corrupt, but familiar grandeur.
As it turns out, the Harvey manages to resonate with everything that is performed there, sometimes in sympathy, sometimes in contrast, but always in a way that enriches the experience for everyone. One cannot ask for more from a dieatre.
THE QUESTION REALLY ISN'T WHY ARTISTS CHOOSE unusual places like the Armory over "normal" theatres; the question is why they don't do it more often, or demand more of these powerful qualities from the new theatres they make. It's a big world, and there are many kinds of stories to tell. Truly, there are as many ideal theatres as there are theatre artists and stories to be told.
Because we never lose our awareness of powerful places like the Armory during a performance, we never forget we are engaged in a collective act of pretending.
It's what we love about live theatre in the first place- that spirit of play, and the things we all did so naturally as children: This pile of crates is now a coach, now a throne; that industrial glass skylight is now a rose window in a cathedral; this factory is now a theatre! You become an active participant radier than a passive spectator, engaging your mind, your eyes, your ears and your heart.
There's nothing new about this. Performers have been appropriating special places for themselves since the dawn of time. Theatre artists who reject purpose-built theatre spaces and seek out warehouses and factories are not trying to exploit nostalgia. They are rejecting what is generic, abstract, overbearing or irrelevant, and seeking instead what is specific, connected to the world around them, full of possibilities, and rich in intellectual and emotional associations that can be played with, or against. There's no reason that a new building made for performance can't be designed to have all these qualities. Some are. They should be. Because when you get right down to it, dieatre grows and flourishes best in the most fertile soil.
ON A HILLSIDE OUTSIDE SHIZUOKA, JAPAN, ARCHITECT Arata Isozaki created a uniquely powerful performance space, called Daendo, for director Tadashi Suzuki. Isozaki has had a long association with Suzuki, who is best known to American authences through his collaboration with Anne Bogart and the SITI contemporary theatre company, which Suzuki and Bogart co-founded in New York. Isozaki designed eight theatres in Japan for the Suzuki Company of Toga; he and the director clearly understand each other, and Isozaki's sensitivity as an architect has served Suzuki well.
We set out one afternoon to attend a performance at Daendo. A bus from downtown Shizuoka was the only option, as parking isn't permitted at the theatre. The bus climbed into the hüls north of the city for about 20 minutes, eventually stopping in a thickly forested area. From there we walked.
Past a small clearing with low tea bushes planted in neat rows, we reached a gatehouse that contains a box office and a small administration wing, and a courtyard that serves as the lobby of an 800-seat outdoor amphitheatre descending along a hillside. The path continued through a tall grove of bamboo, green, swaying and clacking togetiier in rhe breeze far above our heads, then into a much larger field of tea, ringed by forested hillsides receding into the distance. Ahead we saw what appeared to be a one-story building with a shallow peaked roof and a little cupola in the middle.
We arrived at a doorway opening to a wide vestibule flanked by shelves for storing shoes. We placed ours in an empty spot and stepped up, in our socks, onto a wide, smooth hardwood floor that wrapped like a donut around a blank, doorless, elhptjcally shaped room in the middle of the building. Large windows on three sides gave magnificent views of die forested valley below. A staircase spiraling down into the earth led us to another door facing inward; entering, we found ourselves inside a tall elliptical room with daylight coming through the cupola in the roof. Half the room, cut lengthwise, had a black lacquered hardwood floor. This was the stage, with five doorways leading to corridors radiating outward from the ellipse to provide actor entrances. The other half of the room had two rows of cushions on the floor and diree rows of chairs, accommodating no more than 60 people. The houselights faded. Then shades were slowly drawn high above us in the cupola, and the shaft of late afternoon sunlight narrowed, then disappeared, leaving us in total darkness. The play began.
While every element of Daendo's design is carefully considered and highly refined, what matters here is rhe journey that Isozaki takes you on. You are suddenly removed from your normal daily concerns, not through die sensory deprivation of blackness, but by full-fledged immersion in another world. You encounter nature, travel through a changing landscape, encounter a forested vista, then descend into the earth; by the time the play begins, you are one of 60 people who have shared a unique experience together.
In the end, Daendo is an empty space, a simple platform in an elliptical room. But it is far more than that. The journey is like a meditation, clearing the mind, renewing the senses, opening the spirit and preparing the authence to fully engage with the play. The performance could not have the same meaning anywhere else in the world. And that's a wonderful thing.
Joshua Dachs heads theatre consulting firm Fisher Dachs Associates Theatre Planning & Design. FDA's recent projects Include the Head Center for American Theater at Arena Stage, the new Guthrie Theater, the Old Globe's Conrad Prebys Theatre Center and Shakespeare Theatre Company's Harman Center for the Arts.