Modern Theatres 1950 to 2020: The Evolution of a Very British Phenomenon

The UK is different from the continent - and that's why it wants to leave the EU. It also goes its own way in theatre. Shakespeare popularized the thrust stage, renouncing the proscenium arch and allowing direct contact between actors and audience. The tradition was then revived by modern means in the 1970s, giving rise to a whole new generation of intimate theatre houses.

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The purpose of this article is to examine the development of a uniquely British phenomenon, the open stage drama theatre, a form which emerged in the decade from 1970 to 1980, has developed and flourished in the years since and has found its way to many other parts of the world. It is a typology firmly rooted in the British tradition and I will concentrate on the first ten years of its development in the UK.

The main characteristics of the type are

- An open stage with actor and audience in the same room

- A modest size, usually in the 200 - 400 seat range

- Seating galleries on 3 or 4 sides and at 2 or more levels

- Flexibility of layout

Historical Origins

A brief historical detour is needed to understand the origin of this form. There are of course clear precedents in the historic English tradition, most notably the Shakespearean theatre, with its multi-faceted encircling galleries and the playhouses of the 18thC, which were also on multiple levels and were typically rectangular or semi-circular in plan. Whereas the Shakespearean stage is open sided and located within the circular form of the galleries, the 18thC theatre usually had a generous open forestage within the room, where the majority of the acting took place, and a proscenium stage behind, which was predominantly scenic. In both cases the actors were located in the same space as the audience, who surrounded them on three sides and in three dimensions. With a theatrical tradition which was more about text than spectacle, these forms provided a powerful sense of community and connection between the actor and the audience, as well as excellent acoustics because they were both in the same space and very close to one another.

In the 19thC the development of iron and steel structures, combined with the growing popularity of theatre as commercial entertainment, led to a gradual increase in the size of the auditorium and the stage, with the action increasingly retreating into the scenic world of the proscenium stage. The rapid growth of cinemas and cine-variety theatres in the first half of the 20thC further accelerated the move towards ever-larger spaces with a geometry that was dictated by sightlines to the proscenium or screen. Many of these theatres are still in use today and are often much loved and well suited to music and big shows that require larger seating capacities to be financially viable, but intimate they certainly are not. So it was against this background that in the second half of the 20thC a new generation of theatre practitioners sought to break out from the confines of the proscenium stage to engage more directly with the audience, leading to a rediscovery of earlier historic forms.

In the UK this was first manifested in the work of theatre director Tyrone Guthrie and his development of the thrust stage form. This first appeared in his production of ‘The Thrie Estaites’ in 1948 at the second Edinburgh International Festival, which was staged in the General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland, a rectangular galleried hall, in which he constructed the first thrust stage. This was an open platform which projected into the centre of the space, was deeper than it was wide and was surrounded by audience on three sides. There was little scope for scenery and the audience was made more aware of itself as they viewed each other across the stage. This was a joyous rediscovery of the Shakespearean tradition where, in the words of Iain Mackintosh, “Every spectator participated in the ritual of high drama. The Assembly Hall became the focus of drama at the Edinburgh Festival for the next thirty years and theatre architecture was transformed.” (1)

Having failed to persuade Stratford-upon-Avon to build a new theatre in this form, Guthrie was invited in 1952 to direct a festival season of Shakespeare in Stratford, Ontario in Canada, which led to the construction of the first purpose-built Guthrie theatre, first as a temporary tent structure in 1953 and then as a permanent building in 1956, which are dealt with in more detail in Gary McCluskie’s article (siehe BTR 6/2019). The Guthrie theatre form was widely adopted in North America, where significant thrust and arena stages (siehe dazu Artikel von Josh Dachs BTR ??) were built in the 1960s and 70s. It first found its way back to the UK in 1962 with the construction of the Chichester Festival Theatre. This was designed on a tight budget without the involvement of Guthrie or his designer Tanya Moisewitsch and its hexagonal stage failed to capture the essence of the Guthrie thrust, but was nevertheless important for reintroducing the idea of the single space auditorium for the first time in the post war era. It would not be until 1971, shortly after Guthrie’s death, that a true Guthrie theatre was completed in the UK at The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. However, the Guthrie thrust theatre, typically with well over 1,000 seats in a single tier, was of a scale which although well suited to epic productions, particularly the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, was too large for more intimate writing. It was out of this legacy that one of the most important small theatres of the mid 20thC was created at

The Young Vic was commissioned by the National Theatre when they were based at the Old Vic theatre and their new building on the South Bank was under construction. They required a second auditorium for new writing and work aimed at a young audience, but it was envisaged as a temporary building to last for only 6 years, until the new building was ready. The director, Frank Dunlop, had worked at the Edinburgh Festival and knew Guthrie and asked his architect, Bill Howell of HKPA, to develop a scheme. The temporary nature of the building, the low budget and Howell’s modernist background led to a building of remarkable simplicity and focus and a new kind of theatre space. The structure was an externally expressed steel frame, the walls were low cost concrete blocks, both inside and out, and the single gallery on four sides of the auditorium was in heavy bolted timber. An existing Victorian butcher’s shop on the site was retained and re-purposed to provide an entrance foyer. The 420-seat auditorium was square in plan, with chamfered corners, with a simple thrust stage surrounded by wooden benches on three sides. This was a rugged space of great simplicity, which stood in stark contrast to most of the other playhouses in London at the time, which were mostly highly decorated Victorian and Edwardian proscenium houses. Distressed and industrial finishes have now become part of the vernacular, but this was a ‘rough’ theatre, which was years ahead of its time and seminal in its importance. A single space with great focus and of a size which could be both intimate and epic. The ‘temporary’ building survived for 35 years in its original form before being remodelled and extended with great sensitivity by architects Haworth Tompkins in 2006.

The next highly significant small theatre was the Cottesloe, the smallest of the three theatres in the new National Theatre complex, designed by Denys Lasdun and completed in 1976. Originally the third auditorium had been abandoned for cost reasons, but a space had been preserved for it under the stage of the Olivier (der Große Saal des National Theatre, benannt nach dem großen Theatermann Laurence Olivier, d.Red.). When Peter Hall accepted the job as the first director of the new building he did so on condition that the third auditorium would be completed. It was at this point that Iain Mackintosh of Theatre Projects Consultants was invited to propose a low-cost design which could be fitted within the vacant space. His solution was both simple and radical and heavily influenced by his knowledge of the theatres of the 18thC. This was the birth of the modern ‘courtyard’ theatre as we know it today. Three levels of shallow audience galleries were arranged on three sides of the room, while the central space remained flexible and could be reconfigured to create different seating layouts or as a flat floor. Elevators to facilitate these changes were not affordable but fortunately the National Theatre had the resources to make regular changes of layout manually. It would be another 38 years before mechanisation arrived when the theatre was refurbished by Haworth Tompkins and renamed The Dorfman in 2014.

The success of the Cottesloe lay in its flexibility and intimacy, which Iain Mackintosh described as “a framework for freedom”. What set it apart from a typical black box studio was its architectural character, determined by the fixed galleries. Whatever stage form is utilised in the central space the galleries provide a permanent container, the walls of which are ‘papered with people’. The Cottesloe had created a template for small-scale drama theatres for a generation.

In the same year that The National Theatre was completed in London (1976) another even more remarkable theatrical experiment opened at The Royal Exchange in Manchester. This was an in-the-round theatre module created within the enormous space. While it sits outside the rectangular ‘courtyard’ typology it was remarkable in its innovation. The form comprised two levels of galleries encircling a central flexible space and was the result of a collaboration between artistic director Michael Elliot, designer Richard Negri and the architects Levitt Bernstein. Michael Elliot had delivered an influential talk on BBC Radio in 1973 ‘On Not Building for Posterity’, in which he lamented how uninspiring the new steel and concrete theatres springing up around the country were and how quickly they would be out of date.

In Manchester they built a temporary prototype of their theatre, as Guthrie had done in Ontario, designed in scaffolding by Richard Negri. Only when they were satisfied with the form did they employ architects to create a more permanent version. The resulting structure was as hi-tech in its architectural expression (the Pompidou Centre in Paris was under construction and nearing completion) as it was low tech in its theatrical expression.

My own part in this story began in 1978, two years after the completion of the Cottesloe and the Royal Exchange, when I was asked by the then Wakefield Tricycle Company to design a theatre which could be inserted into a 1920s dance hall they had found in Kilburn, north London. They were a start-up company who had previously played in small spaces over pubs and their budget was extremely limited. I had already been captivated by the magic of the Georgian Theatre in Richmond Yorkshire (1788) as much as I was by the creative use of standard industrial products that could be bought from catalogues. I had also admired the simplicity of the Public Theater in Pittsburgh, designed by Peter Wexler, a low cost theatre space built in scaffolding, which opened in 1975. Against this background, I came up with the idea of constructing a theatre of similar form and dimensions to Richmond out of a contractor’s scaffolding system. It could be built by theatre carpenters, would be very quick to build and very cheap. Working with Iain Mackintosh we devised a rectangular courtyard form with 2 levels of galleries around a flexible pit. The structure was free-standing within the room and carried all its own staircases and lighting trusses, taking only lateral support from the existing walls. Balcony fronts were laced-in canvas panels, borrowed from the boating world, and seating was on upholstered benches with no arms (as at the Young Vic and Cottesloe before). We firmly believed that physical contact between audience members and not too much comfort contributed to the sense of a shared experience. The 220 seat Tricycle Theatre opened in 1980, was rebuilt after a major fire in 1987, and remained almost unaltered for 37 years until 2017, when it was sadly removed and replaced with a more comfortable but less compelling structure.

The legacy of the courtyard form as it was rediscovered in the 1970s has continued to exert a powerful influence on the design of small and medium scale drama spaces in the last 40 years, and has also awakened an interest in a more 3 dimensional design approach to larger theatres and concert halls, which are too numerous to mention here. Most notable of the theatres in the UK are The Swan at Stratford-upon-Avon (1986) which led to the much larger Courtyard and RST theatres, which are less successful due to their larger size, regional theatres in Bracknell, Leeds, The Lowry Quays and the Liverpool Everyman, the recently opened Bridge Theatre in London (siehe BTR 3 ? 2018) , and school theatres at Dulwich College, Winchester, Gresham’s, Alleyn’s, Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Bedford and many more. In North America the form appeared in Calgary, Portland, New York and Chicago and at the all singing, all dancing Dee and Charles Wyly Theater in Dallas. It is a form which can be as simple or sophisticated as clients and their budgets determine, which engages audiences like no other and remains ‘a framework for freedom’.


1) The Guthrie Thrust Stage and his Living Legacy by Iain Mackintosh from the catalogue for the British entry to the Prague Quadrennial 2011. Association of British Theatre Technicians
2) Making Space for Theatre by Ronnie Mulryne and Margaret Shewring. Mulryne and Shewring 1995
3) Iain Mackintosh. The Cottesloe at the National Theatre, edited by Ronnie Mulryne and Margaret Shewring and Technical Editor Jason Barnes. Mulryne and Shewring 1999
4) Michael Billington. The Cottesloe at the National Theatre, edited by Ronnie Mulryne and Margaret Shewring and Technical Editor Jason Barnes. Mulryne and Shewring 1999
5) Michael Elliot. Making Space for Theatre by Ronnie Mulryne and Margaret Shewring. Mulryne and Shewring 1995
6) Making Space for Theatre by Ronnie Mulryne and Margaret Shewring. Mulryne and Shewring 1995

BTR Ausgabe 5 2020
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 162
von Tim Foster