Latitude and light

The state theatre La Comédie in the French town of Clermont-Ferrand has found a home at last. In just three years, a theatre that accounts for all the needs of technicians and artists alike has been completed – on a patch of disused land where the bus terminal used to operate. By Thomas Hahn

Bühnentechnische Rundschau

The waiting in Clermont-Ferrand (population: 144,000) is over. It took a long time for the town to get an adequately sized, modern theatre but it was worth it, and worth the 38-million-euro budget – of which 6 million came from Paris and 32 million from the local and regional authorities. In just three years, Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura has created a concrete utopia – a virtually ideal venue – for the previously homeless state theatre La Comédie.

The building covers an area of 9300m² on the grounds of the former municipal bus terminal, which had been disused since it closed ten years ago. The project enjoyed special architectural latitude partly because the entire quarter, a former industrial area just 700m from the town centre, is earmarked for redevelopment. The bus terminal’s entrance hall, a listed building, is the only remaining historical structure in the quarter. This 300m² rectangular block now serves as the theatre’s foyer.

La Comédie is a spectacular success for the architect, especially considering it is his first theatre. Rather than acting the star, Souto de Moura listened from the start to any ideas and wishes that came up concerning the everyday running of the theatre. He was helped by local architects Bruhat & Bouchady. The result is a theatre that facilitates smooth-running work processes for all, and is flooded with light throughout, from the historical entrance hall to the unloading bay at the back of the building. Julien Brunhes, La Comédie’s technical director, reveals another influence: “Eduardo Souto de Moura worked with the stage planner Félix Levebre, former technical director of the Théâtre du Chatelet in Paris and the Aix-en-Provence Festival”. Brunhes, too, was involved in the building’s conception from the outset. “And I got all our technical staff involved,” he adds.

Construction took three years. Unusually, the three stages and approaches are all on the ground floor, arranged around three sides of a central, open patio; a wonderful place for the artists to spend breaks in the summer. But the triangular arrangement also has a technical purpose: to ensure the stages of the main and second hall, where scenery is used, have direct access to the unloading bay. The rehearsal studio is tucked between the two. “That is precisely what we liked so much about the project. The entire delivery process can be done smoothly. When halls are on top of each other or far apart, it gets complicated.”

The artists who rehearse in the studio appreciate the generous windows on to the patio, which can be covered to create a black box as well as left uncovered to work in daylight. The corridors leading to the boxes, offices and control booth also get natural light, either through skylights or windows. The potential for window space is increased because the theatre is basically three independent halls grouped around the patio. Not only do all the offices and performance spaces, canteens, etc. and even all the boxes have windows, so do the ‘green rooms’ where the performers wait to go on while watching the action on stage via monitors.

The main hall ‘of the horizon’ seats 878 (incl. 10 wheelchairs) and has a 29 x 19m stage. The auditorium is horseshoe-shaped, in the baroque, Italian style, while the risers have an incline of about 35°. That means that the last of the 26 rows in the stalls are only 30m away from the stage.

The same applies to the control desks for the sound, light, and video, which are positioned right behind the last row. “For the acoustics, we focused on the human voice. The building is clearly designed for spoken-word theatre,” Brunhes explains, referring to the concept by Kahle Acoustics and EGIS engineering agency. Opting to do without an orchestra pit, the stage planners placed substantial importance on the sound system instead (see below).

The side balconies do not have seating. While visually contributing to the feel of an Italian theatre, they are reserved for technology and technicians. The six corridors are fully equipped with retractable lighting poles, and technicians can walk along them even during performances.

An 18 x 14m area of the stage is expandable. The plateau is supported by 3.5m-high pillars. There is no mechanical lifting system or basically any lower machinery at all. Instead, the hoist offloads directly to the generously cut, almost 150m² backstage area. The grid hangs at a height of 21m in the 25m-high fly tower. Right and left, 24 grid winches are attached on each side, controlled via WiFi. The door to the hoist, which can carry up to 5 t, opens directly on to the backstage area, with a 9m-high grid, equipped with eight winches.

Good sound quality in the hall is ensured by the directional, variable sound system by Fohhn. The speakers are integrated into the proscenium arch and concealed from the audience. In addition, there are four subwoofers, a surround system with 6 loudspeakers and 24 additional speakers that can be used as required. The light is controlled via an EOS Titan console by ETC Lighting. “We wanted to control the spotlights in the hall and on the stage, if possible, via sACN so that, if at all, we only have to change to DMX at the last minute,” explains lighting technician Florentin Six.

The reconfigurable second hall ‘of possibilities’, Salle des Possibles, allows a variety of configurations, from frontal to Quadro-frontal, and offers seating for up to 336 (including ten wheelchairs) or standing room for 1000. Like the new Salle Firmin Gémier in the Chaillot Theater in Paris (BTR 1/2018), it is equipped with wall mounts for anchoring circus apparatus. After all, La Comédie aims to present contemporary circus productions as well as drama and dance. The other purpose of the hall is to offer companies in residence an alternative stage to the main hall, with a comparative breadth (though at 13m it has less depth), where they can rehearse for premieres. The technical arrangement is similar as that in the main hall, albeit in somewhat smaller dimensions, from the height of the grid (10m) to the number of winches (20). The light and sound technology are by the same firms as that in the Salle de l’Horizon.

The rehearsal studio, in between the medium-sized and the main hall, provides 230m² of playing area and space for 50 spectators, and is equipped with a control room and spotlights. And after performances, the audience leaves the modern La Comédie through the historical entrance hall with its stylistic mix of brutalism, neoclassicism, and art deco.

BTR Ausgabe 6 2020
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 166
von Thomas Hahn

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