From different angles, two new theatres in Dublin and Dallas are opening up new possibilities for artistic and commercial theatrical success. After three centuries of boxed theatre, from chocolate boxes to black boxes, and a focus on preservation and conservation, its time to lift the lid for exploration and collaboration.
In Dublin, the opening in March of Daniel Liebeskind’s iconic Grand Canal Theatre will open up a much wider set of programming possibilities for the city and may begin to establish a more sustainable ecology. The Grand Canal Theatre, which opens in Dublin’s Docklands in March is part of the major Dublin Docklands development which you can get to by crossing the Liffey over the latest in the great artist bridges the Samuel Becket bridge. With 2100 seats, the theatre is state of the art technically and architecturally, taking all the know-how of theatre engineers, acousticians and designers to create a great theatre space. The possibilities it opens up are enormous, not only in programming international dance, opera, musicals and theatre but also by creating the space for development of a greater commercial sector in Ireland. The theatre community is suffering from the prospect of further cuts in public expenditure. But the skills and talents of theatre companies and individual producers have produced commercial success on Broadway and elsewhere and they will have their eye on the potential of this new space.
In Dallas, Joshua-Prince Ramus has turned the whole process of theatre architecture on its head, The fly-tower in the new Wyly Theatre is a tower which flies, with not only the roof raising but the walls too, literally opening up the theatre. The potential for artistic invention and community collaboration is enormous and blows away the conventions of the last century, putting the artistic inventor in the lead with the architecture following. As Ramus says, “you can watch Becket against the Dallas skyline”.
Both of these developments were enabled by corporate philanthropy and interventions. In Dublin, the developer Harry Crosbie and the Docklands Corporation and in Dallas AT& T and the Wylys created an environment where such risks could be taken.
Here in the UK Leicester’s Curve may be our last example of innovatory theatre architecture for some time. Now we are boxed in. Our theatres are all built and refurbished with public money in a climate which has become increasingly resistant to risk of any sort. The Arts Lottery funded some great new buildings and some refurbishments but often on the basis on minimising risk, ensuring that every pound of public expenditure would lever the ‘best value’ return.
For those buildings not refurbished during the Lottery largesse there are residual problems. The Kings in Edinburgh presents world class theatre particularly during the Edinburgh Festival, in a building which is woeful in its conditions. The City Council will not fund a major refurbishment so the theatre will need to struggle on.
As we batten down the hatches, we need to keep an eye on possibilities for opening up theatres and not being a slave to the old buildings. Some of our chocolate box theatres, like Frank Matcham’s must be preserved as our national heritage and ideally animated as local live performance spaces. But we need to move on and free theatre from the restrictions of old buildings. And look for ways to raise the roof and open the walls.