It’s striking, isn’t it, that theatre is the only art form—indeed, perhaps the only area of human endeavor—whose name refers both to the thing itself and to the place where it happens. Imagine, for instance, that science were called “laboratory,” painting “gallery,” music “concert hall,” sports “stadium”…you get the idea. (The case of “cinema” is arguable, though it’s a much rarer term for both the building and the art form in question.)
I’d say this is hardly a coincidence. The oft-repeated cliché that each instance of theatre is a unique, unrepeatable event for a particular audience in a particular place and time has its root in the irreducible reality of physical space. That this grounding is reflected in the very language we use for it shouldn’t be a surprise.
Indulging this thought experiment one step further, if you will, consider that theatre isn’t even the only kind of live performance or event offered within theatre buildings; these would include films, lectures, dances, concerts, awards shows. So what is it about this art called “theatre” that binds it as one with the word for its venue? Is there something inherently architectural about theatre itself?
I don’t mean the ways in which plays, like every other human contrivance, can be said to have structures or shapes. I mean: Do a series of scripted actions embodied by living people on and around fabricated settings, for the benefit of people gathered to view them, have at their root an essence that can be said to be architectural? That question may answer itself. For as long as humans have been acting out stories with and for each other, the places where they’ve congregated for that purpose have inspired, limited, even in some sense determined the content and meaning of the experience, for both spectators and performers. From sightline patterns to the number of bathroom stalls, from fly space to acoustic dead spots, theatre is a fine-grained art and science of physicality, of bodies in space, arranged and calibrated, as all arts are, to express as wide a range of humanity as possible, but constrained in a way few other arts are within the very bounds of the human form and the space around it. And no amount of radical staging concepts, technological innovation, new economic models, or social-media distractions can supplant this place-based corporeality, even as the theatre’s parts and players rotate and morph.
That’s one takeaway from Joshua Dachs’s provocative essay on the cyclical history of innovation and tradition as it relates to theatre architecture, which anchors this issue’s thematic subject. We’ve taken good long looks at some of the designs that appear on U.S. stages, but this issue takes stock of the whole theatrical buildings of which stages are the main but not sole element. Who designs these gathering places, how, and why? If there has been some justified hand-wringing over the years about the “edifice complex”—the tendency of companies to build ever bigger and newer facilities, then struggle to fill, let alone pay for them—the stories in this issue make clear that at its best the appetite for construction has its roots in the same impulses that make artists want to put on shows in the first place.
If, in some essential, underlying sense, all theatrical performances are site-specific, consider this issue our attempt to get more specific about sites.