“Every project needs a champion to succeed“

The British theatre consultant David Staples has published the book „Modern Theatres 1950 to 2020“. Supported by experts from allover the world and with corporation of three magazines - ABTT Sightline, Buehnentechnische Rundschau and Theatre Design&Technology, he has undertaken a critical review of significant theatres. Single chapters of the 590 pages book have been published in advance in the three magazines. 

Bühnentechnische Rundschau

BTR: You have accomplished the Book Modern Theatres, congratulations! If I understand it right, this is the „culmination“ of more than 40 years of work as a theatre consultant. 
How did you get the idea to work as a a theatre conscultant? It is a profession one could not learn or study in those times..

I first got involved with theatre doing the lighting for school plays at the age of 11. I went through school and college with a passion for theatre. Rather more prosaically at Polytechnic I studied business administration and management.

My professional involvement in theatre buildings dates back to 1975 when Richard Brett recruited me to Theatre Projects Consultants. I was subsequently mentored and inspired by Richard Pilbrow, one of the luminaries of our industry. I joined Theatre Projects in my early twenties and I thought it might keep me interested for four or five years, before I moved onto something else. Forty-four years on, I can think of no job that could have been more varied and rewarding.

What was your task at Theatre Consultant and what do you think, how many theatres did you work on in your professional career? 
My career evolved over time. When I joined Theatre Projects it was a UK consulting company with no overseas work. At that time the work was mainly on smaller scale UK theatre buiuldings and my role was as a relatively junior consultant  

I think the reason I effectively made my life at Theatre Projects was the many ways in which the company evolved and my growing role in that development. There were probably three aspects of that development, geography, type of project and services offered.  

Geography – having started as a UK centered company as the business and its reputation developed there were increasing opportunities to work on international projects – initially in former British influenced territories – Hong Kong, West Africa, etc. The oil price boom brought interest in theatres in the Middle East. A significant project in Calgary, Alberts was our first consulting project in North America and it became apparent that our expertise and services might be attractive to clients in the USA. Since then the team has spread across the globe.

There are a wide variety of different theatre buildings – playhouse, concert hall, dance venue, opera house, recital rooms, etc. Each type presents differing challenges as the client and design team search for a solution for that particular community. 

When theatre consultancy first emerged as a discipline in the UK, USA and Germany it was initially focussed on the equipment – getting the lights, rigging, sound systems, etc. in the correct place and working. But over time there was a realisation that while the equipment might be very good some fundamental errors were occuring in the planning of the buildings and especially auditoria and stages. So as a team we developed what became known as theatre planning services to work with the architect, client and users to produce an excellent building and equipment. 

There was a further development into the initial planning, development of concepts, feasibility studies and generally working with clients to assemble a viable and achievable project. These ‚front end‘ studies and assignments became my natural home working with a client, city, Ministry of Culture, etc. to plan a new project assisting in pulling together the project – land, site, design team, etc. My management training helped in these assignments and I became not only a theatre consultant but also a Fellow of the UK and US Institutes of Management Consultants. Eventually becoming a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute (CMgr FCMI)

What did you find most fascinating in your work? 
Occasionally someone has asked me what is my best or most interesting project to which I’d reply „The next one!“ I’ve always believed very strongly that every situation, every city and every client or user is unique. The team should be working to develop a creative, exceptional solution for every project. That is the most exciting part of my work over the past 40 years. I never want to repeat myself. Yes, learn from previous projects but strive to create something distinctive and exclusive for each client. 

You worked in many countries of the world, mostly of the English speaking world but also in China, Saudia Arabia, Oman - different cultures and political systems. How did you develop ways in the collaboration and working conditions with the different countries? 
I was born and brought up in the North of England with very little exposure to other cultures. religions or political systems. The past 45 years have changed that radically, I have worked in 67 countries with every political system from democracy through communism, fascism, Monarchy, etc. I’ve encountered and enjoyed trying to understand every major religion in the world. Working in the performing arts it is inevitable you will come across every conceivable gender identity and sexual orientation. These experiences have enriched my life in incalculable ways. 

Almost every project has been brought to fruition by  a project champion, be that person a citizen, community leader, government  minister, president, sheikh, sultan, emir or communist party secretary. Some have been effective dictators, others more subtle motivators, and it has been fascinating to see how many different ways there are to get such things done. 

I have been involved in many projects that have successfully reached opening night. But, I have been involved in many more that did not make it. I wish now I’d kept a record but the projects that crashed and burned considerably outnumber those that succeed. If you want an easy and comfortable life do not embark on a theatre building project. 

Many different types of group – citizens, government, municipality, etc initiate building projects. They need one person or a small core group with the determination, energy and influence to fight for the dream and force it through to reality. Some project champions are effective at generating support and building consensus for project. Others are dictators who simply force everything through to a conclusion. 

In the projects of Theatre Projects, one can observe that the shape of the auditoria are often the same, horse shoe shape. Iain Mackinthosh, senior architect of Theatre Consultants, was a strong supporter of this intimate yet traditional shape. Does the consultant in the English speaking world has more power in the decision taking process of the design or is there a better collaboration between architect and consultant than here? 
The influence held by a theatre consultant depends on the team or practice, on the individual and the context. Some teams or practices take a quite narrow approach to the role of the theatre consultant looking at only one aspect of the work, often the technologies. Other teams take a broader more holistic view looking at all aspects of the project – auditorium, public spaces, business planning, city context, as well as the technologies.

There are many knowledgable, strong individuals in the consulting world who have developed specific interests or areas of expertise and may espouse a particular design philosophy. 

Every project is different and the context differs. Design teams have become ever larger and more complex often to the detriment of a project. Some design teams come together well and are successful at developing innovative, creative ideas. Other teams have difficulties with clashes of ego or personalities. The client needs to be aware of this in assembling a team for their project. 

You did not have many projects in Continental Europe and especially in Germany, if I am correct. What are the reasons for this?
Germany and Central Europe has a very well developed design and construction industry with standards, procedures, and methodologies that can wrap a project (not just theatres) in an overwhelming cloak of studies, analysis and bureaucracy. It is no coincidence that almost every significant project in Germany is either behind schedule, over budget or both. Before a project commences there is a need for innumerable studies and reports on economics, environment, viability, planning regulations, etc. etc. The brief and documentation for a new building in Central Europe will be interminable and weigh many kilos.  

By contrast many countries have significantly more freedom with a need for minimal studies. In the Middle East or Asia the brief my simply say „We need a theatre of 2,000 seats.“ There are risks in such an unregulated environment but the project will probably be completed in half or one third of the time needed in Central Europe. The growth in the number of consultants involved in projects has contributed to this inertia. Projects have become slower and more expensive and the risk of failure is increased.  

You have been invited to discussions about big theatre projects in Germany, in Dusseldorf and also Frankfurt you have been in contact. What are your observations from outside about the decision taking and way of planning new theatres or renovations here? 
The previous answer talked about process, the danger in Germany of studying everything to death before a project proceeds. This is often needed to keep funders and government happy but serves little practical purpose.  

But there is a further danger that these interminable processes will stifle creativity and innovation. Germany has some of the most exciting and innovative theatres of the past 70 years. Berlin Philharmonie, MiR in Gelsenkirchen, Boulez Saal in Berlin, etc. The only really interesting modern project in Germany is to my mind the Boulez Saal which although Government funded was built by a Stiftung (Foundation) outside of the normal heavy hand of  government processes. 

Yes, this was really an exception, also because the architect Frank Gehry and the acoustician Yasuhia Toyota offered their service for little fees. This brings us to your book, Modern Theaters. The theatres you named are included in it, but you also said that the book  should not only highlight the best theaters of the world, but also the worst - in terms of practical use. How did you get the idea to write a book about good and bad theatre construction? 
There was no one, over riding inspiration rather a number of factors. Edwin Sachs and his work were important, being asked to Chair the Editorial board for ITEAC 2018 got me thinking and my imminent retirement from full time consulting work meant I probably had the time to create a book. 

One hundred and twenty years ago Edwin Sachs produced three volumes on theatre buildings across Europe. This eminent Victorian, who at various times in his career performed the roles of architect, stagehand, engineer, and fireman, wrote the classic work Modern Theatres and Opera Houses, completed in 1898 when he was just 28 years old. Published in the earliest days of photography, the book contains a few black-and-white photographs; its strength are the detailed drawings of European opera houses and theatres. It also reproduces many of the European fire codes that then applied to theatres while a fascinating section lists all the theatres damaged or destroyed by fire in the 19thC. During this period of gas and candle lighting the average theatre was destroyed by fire every 12 years. 

Many other books have been published on the historic opera houses and theatres of Europe and the world, but remarkably few deal with theatres from the second half of the 20th century. 

Only to think of realizing this project as an individual and at the start besides your regular work was quite daring! How did you get to practical terms? 
A more recent influence on me and my collaborators has been Richard Brett, the consultant who in 2002 initiated a series of conferences about theatre buildings, their engineering, and technologies the Theatre Engineering and Architecture Conference (TEAC). It grew and added the word International to become (ITEAC) and was repeated in 2006 and 2010, with Richard at the helm as Director. Following his untimely death, two further conferences were held in 2014 and 2018 for which I chaired the editorial boards. 

Planning for the 2018 event began in 2015, when it was discussed how the conference might benefit from speakers who had undertaken research and analysis on specific topics and theatres. Two ideas emerged:

    1. To ask leading thinkers and experts in their fields to write essays on specific topics – with a view to using these to inform conference sessions 
    2. To ask architects, theatre people, consultants, etc. to re-appraise 30 “significant” theatres that had opened between 1950 and 2010. 

This book is a development of those ideas, and it needed the recruitment of experienced men and women as collaborators. This could have been a complex, lengthy task with many rejections, but amazingly, the process was surprisingly smooth. A mock-up was prepared and almost all those approached were enthusiastic and willing to be involved.  Some 39 talented people from 14 countries have contributed chapters to the book.  

Three magazines were especially supportive and agreed to publish articles as they became available from 2015 to 2020. They were:

    • Bühnentechnische Rundschau (BTR), the journal of Deutsche Theatertechnische Gesellschaft e.v. (DTHG), the German Association devoted to theatre, its technicians, and technologies.

    • Sightline, the journal of the Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT). This carries articles about theatre technologies, theatre building safety and other significant issues. 

    • Theatre Design and Technology Journal (TD&T) has been published quarterly for more than 50 years by the United States Institute of Theatre Technology (USITT), an organization that promotes dialogue, research, and learning among practitioners of theatre design and technology. 

More than 30 articles have appeared in these journals, in either English, German or American English leading up to the publication of this book. It has reassured me to think that many of the classic novels of Charles Dickens and other great writers first appeared, in similar fashion, as partworks.

Just as the world of publishing has changed out of all recognition since Dickens’ day, so change has come to the performing arts. Orchestras may continue to perform Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven but they also embrace new music that challenges traditional forms.  Performing arts spaces have been transformed. Concert halls in 2020 are radically different from those constructed in the 1950s, although opera houses have seen rather less change. Thousands of found spaces have been pressed into performance use. 

What does the title „modern“ refer to? 
This book is entitled Modern Theatres. By ‘modern’ we mean theatres that opened between 1950 and 2020, and we have used the word ‘theatre’ to embrace all types of performing arts building – playhouses or drama theatres, opera houses, concert halls and recital rooms, dance theatres, studios, educational and community performing arts spaces. A more comprehensive but ungainly title would have been “Modern Theatres, opera houses, concert halls, playhouses, dance venues and other spaces for live performance”. 

The book is in three sections:

    1. Essays. Several people have written essays on topics relating to the cities, buildings, architecture, and technologies associated with theatre buildings. The essays are introduced in chapter 1. 

    2. Thirty significant theatres 1950 to 2010. The original intention was to review 30 significant theatres that opened between 1950 and 2010. We wanted to allow sufficient time after opening for a fair evaluation and appreciation of each building to be made. So, the list was cut at 2010. 

    3. Theatres 2011 to 2020. The subsequent ten years  proved a rich period for new theatres of all scales and types, so it was decided to add snapshots of 20 further buildings – a selection of those completed between 2011 and 2020.

Having collaborated with the book, I found it really interesting to get a very broad insight into buildings, because you asked the authors for a critical review. The Sydney Opera, the probably most famous opera building in the world, appears as a complete failure in terms of practical use and 
acoustics. Elbphilharmonie could follow this way.. 

The book intends to help avoid these big mistakes. 

What first conclusions can you draw from the numerous articles for the future of theatre buildings - what are the most important points to consider?
Some observations based on the book – 

    • Theatres can be hugely successful and receive international acclaim but be terrible theatre buildings – the Sydney Opera House being probably the best example, it has bad acoustics and poor functionality which have been considerably improved only recently. 
    • Sydney was one of the first buildings to reject the straight line and rectangle and embrace curved forms. Sydney begat work by Gehry, Zaha Hadid, MAD Architects, etc. 
    • Selecting a famous architect or “Starchitect” does not guarantee success. Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the most acclaimed architects of the 20th C but his only theatre the Kalita Humphreys in Dallas is a disaster. 
    • A lot of small and very exquisite recital halls have and are being built around the world. They are rectangular with high ceilings for good acoustics. They are paneled in elegant pale wood and are fundamentally rather boring.  The Boulez Saal in Berlin by Frank Gehry breaks the mold.
    • The Philharmonie in Berlin is probably the most influential performing arts building of the last 70 years. Before were conventional shoe box halls. Scharoun invented the vineyard hall derivatives of which are being built everywhere. But while the vineyard is a more visually interesting room it is possibly not quite as good acoustically as the best shoebox rooms. 

Last question: Do you have any favorite theatre / opera house / concert hall? 
What a difficult question.  I have had some wonderful experiences in found spaces. The great European opera houses are great. Smaller venues are generally better than bigger. On occasion I have told clients the two secrets of a successful new theatre are lots of car parking and adequate women’s toilets to avoid queues. So, I think I am going to dodge the question.  

You have always been interested in sharing and discussing your knowledge and have been a long year member of ABTT and ISPA, International Society for the Performing Arts, where you received an international award. A great reward for your initiatives!
They honored me with their International Citation of Merit “… presented for unique lifetime achievement which has enriched the performing arts”. When I look at the list of previous recipients I realise this is a wonderful honour and wonder “Why me?”. The award was presented in New York at ISPA’s annual conference by Benson Puah, my good friend, and CEO of The Esplanade in Singapore. 

I knew that Benson could not resist the temptation to tease me about my air miles and appalling carbon footprint. So, I decided to assemble some statistics in my defense – 

    • I have been a member of ISPA for 41 years.
    • Part of the Theatre Projects team for 44 years. 
    • Been involved either in a major or peripheral role in auditoriums with 86,655 seats. 
    • Worked in 67 countries 
    • Flown (approximately) 8,010,473 miles, that’s 22 months spent in the air and the equivalent of 16.6 round trips to the moon. 

My son and his family were in the audience and when I said, “That’s the equivalent of 16.6 trips to the moon”. Arthur, my Grandson leant across to his father and asked, “Has Granddad really been to the moon 16 times”. 

I must finish by apologizing for my carbon footprint but hope you enjoy the theatres. 

People around the world certainly do. and now that you have retired and have finished Modern Theatres, you hopefully have time and energy for that too! 


BTR Ausgabe 2 2021
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 178
von Karin Winkelsesser

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