I recently had the pleasure of spending time with Hugh Hardy, architect extraordinaire and principal in H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture. Many of our theatre organizations are celebrating 50th anniversaries, and so is Hugh—he has been practicing his craft for a landmark half-century. In those years, he has become one of the most influential American architects when it comes to theatre.
I first encountered Hugh almost 20 years ago, during my tenure as managing director of the Wilma Theater. He was partner in charge of design for the new Wilma on Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts. One afternoon, I rode the train to New York with artistic directors Blanka and Jiri Zizka, along with a few members of the theatre’s building committee, to mull over Hugh’s ideas for interior finishes. He showed us a variety of elegant patterns, colors and woodstains. I was in awe of his imagination. And even after our project was complete, he traveled from New York to attend some of our shows.
A recently published book, Theater of Architecture, delves into the thought process that shaped 20 of Hardy’s projects. He compares his process for designing public spaces with the way an actual theatre experience affects its participants. “Even though these projects do not all look the same, they all were created with the intention of setting the stage for their inhabitants’ different journeys of discovery,” Hugh writes in the book’s preface. “I imagine this may be the result of my affection for theatre.” He applies this particular sensibility to projects ranging from Manhattan’s Bryant Park café to Theatre for a New Audience’s impressive new home in Brooklyn to upstate New York’s National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Hugh’s practice continues to include new theatres and performing arts centers, and his work in this vein amounts to a fascinating ongoing inquiry into the future of theatre architecture. What do new performing arts structures need to look and feel like? How can they be adaptive to changes in the way people engage with live performance, whether as artist, audience or both? What “functionality” should they include in order to accommodate traditional approaches to the art, as well as new forms and ways of engaging the public?
These musings, primarily about indoor theatre space, have been complimented by my recent experiences with theatre in the great outdoors.
In July, the Classical Theatre of Harlem, on a mission to create the uptown version of Shakespeare in the Park, mounted A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park. The production was at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater, nestled among tall old trees and open lawns, next to a giant public swimming pool and a pathway that leads up a steep hill to one of New York’s old fire watchtowers. There were birds flying through, and wind in the trees; people on evening strolls with their dogs and kids stopped to see what was happening. The performance was free and non-ticketed, and it was packed with enthusiastic crowds of all ages and walks of life. The architecture was porous. The neighborhood was abuzz.
In August I visited American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisc. While APT recently built a lovely new 200-seat indoor theatre called the Touchstone, the company’s work is primarily centered at its “Up the Hill” theatre, a 1,148-seat cradle in the woods. There, the lights go down, actors walk on stage, the whippoorwills sing, and silhouettes of trees stand surreal against the dusk sky. As the light from the stage beams out like fire from a hearth, the audience is pulled in. This journey of discovery evokes, for some, the faint recollection of fairy tales, where the deepest human truths are discovered in the forest. And, in this case, the forest is virtually part of the theatre’s architecture.
Because the resident theatre movement has brought about robust theatre communities across the country, the average American theatregoer doesn’t need to travel very far for his or her theatre fix (unless it’s that annual pilgrimage to New York). But people do travel to experience theatre outdoors. The Institute of Outdoor Drama—which, coincidentally, also celebrates its 50th anniversary this year—conducts an annual attendance survey, and its figures indicate that in 2012, more than half of the attendees at IOD member theatres came from at least 200 miles away. Maybe it’s because these theatres have become “destination theatres,” or maybe there is simply a powerful draw to experiencing theatre outside…where, if you consider the art form’s origins, it actually belongs!
Diep Tran’s informative American Theatre piece, “The Walls Come Tumbling Down” (July/Aug. ’13), quotes La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley’s telling observation: “A lot of the energy of the regional theatre movement went into creating, in every city, a temple of art, a beautiful theatre. Now there is a next generation of impulse, which is: Let’s reinvent where theatre happens. This is an impulse that’s not about creating a building, but about exploring preexisting architecture and landscapes.”
As we embark upon a new theatre season, most productions will take place inside these beautiful theatres. But let’s also remember and pay tribute to the season that is mostly winding down—the alternative season of theatre outdoors. This is theatre in which performance spaces are carved out of woods and public parks, where light and motion on stages surrounded by trees and sky evoke reminders of the human need to commune with nature and hearth.
And perhaps we can also take a cue from Hugh Hardy: We can think more deeply about the journey of discovery offered by the spaces—indoors and out—where the plays we love take place.