Saturday, October 29, 2011

Old Theatres

When I got to Newark in the late 1980s, they, like a lot of communities in the country, had a couple of abandoned theatres in the heart of its downtown.

The Midland Theatre opened in 1928 as a hybrid move/vaudeville house.  It was the new kid on the block compared to the venerable Auditorium Theatre which was primarily a live theatre that was later retrofitted to increase capacity and to incorporate motion pictures.

Perhaps not as grand as the movie palaces that sprang up in the country's larger cities, these two spaces were nonetheless intended as centers of their community where people of all classes could come together to enjoy the latest melodrama, or see the big name acts in vaudeville.

The use of the word "palaces" is particularly appropriate because they were intended to impress.  They were the architectural equivalent of shock and awe.

Without the experience of actually setting foot in these spaces, it's hard to imagine that there was a time when theatre owners would compete with each other to see how much could be spent to create spacious lobbies, attractive marquees and richly decorated auditoria.  As audiences we have come to accept the maxim that all that is needed to put on a show is "two boards and a passion".  The spaces where we will go to watch a concert, or a movie, or a play have become less and less.

They are smaller, they are uglier and designed not for the experience of the audience but to maximize the profit of their owners.

I love old theatres in the same way that I love old churches:  their scale and grandeur immediately re-frame the experience of their audiences and change their behavior.

You might be the meanest, toughest, cussingest son of a mother on the street, but when you walk into a church, or grand theatre, you reconsider your behavior.  In the same way that when you walk into some stores you can tell without even looking at a price tag that you can't afford to shop there, the architects and designers of these spaces forced you to slow down, quiet down and look up.  It's a shift in power.

* * *

At the time of its opening in the early 1990s I remember reading about the design of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.  The planners put a lot of thought into how they were going to tell the story of the rise of National Socialism in Germany, the massacre of Jews and other undesirable populations and the resistance to those efforts.

It was an important part of the planning that Museum visitor come away with a visceral understanding of what it was like to live through those times.

Museum designers paid attention to traffic patterns, the relative volume of spaces, the sounds and sights to which visitors would be exposed and used all of these elements, together with their collection of artifacts, to bring the experience to life.
 A key moment in the Museum is when visitors come upon a box car--one of many that were used to transport prisoners to concentration camps.  This is one of the few places in the Museum where guest can choose their path.  They can either walk through the car, or walk around it--a recognition that for some, in particular Holocaust survivors, the experience of being in the car would be overwhelming.

* * *

Disney are masters of this kind of audience management.

In their theme parks, they don't wait for you to get on the ride before they start telling you a story.  Whether you are on line for the Haunted Mansion, or Pirates of the Carribbean, the moment you get into line, you are in the world of the story.  Lines snake back and forth from outside to inside and from room to room and as you round each corner, you make new discoveries related to what you are about to see.  The designers are framing your experience and designing your expectations.

After a day of waiting on line for various attractions, the notion of a FastPass alternative--a shortcut to the front of the line--can seem attractive, but I think, to a certain extent, it diminishes the overall experience of the ride.  The Kilamanjaro Safari experience at Disney's Animal Kingdom is a wonderful opportunity to see a variety of exotic animals in something approximating their natural habitat, but there is also a conservation message that permeates the "pre-show" line experience that is diminished if you can just step onto the ride vehicle.  It's kind of like simply pulling a rabbit out of a hat without first going through the step of demonstrating that it was empty.

* * *

Over the years I have been fortunate to have seen a number of the resident shows of Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas.  They too believe that their shows begin the moment their audiences arrive.

A particularly good example of this is with "Ka."  The person taking your ticket is costumed in the style of the show.  Audience members are surrounded in textures and colours consistent with the show.

As the audience walks from the lobby to the auditorium, they pass walls covered in what appear to be rough-hewn timbers from a pre-industrial culture.  Once in the auditorium, the aesthetic is all steel and catwalks, towers and bridges--similar in feel to a petroleum refinery.  And, as if to seal that impression, there are occasional bursts of flame that come up out of "the void" that will become the performance space.

The contrast between the pre-industrial and the industrial mirrors the conflict that is at the heart of the story.

That so much of the story involves characters rising and falling--both in stature and in physical space--the audience is set up for that when, as they are taking their seats, performers descend from the ceiling to within inches of their heads before they just as rapidly disappear from whence they came.

All of this atmosphere is in the service of setting the scene and establishing the reality in which the show's characters will operate.  If you make the mistake of arriving late, you not only miss out on this "appetizer" but the experience of the show is less immersive.  You are more a spectator and less of a collaborator in the show.

Another example of this can be found in "Zumanity."  This show was designed to be more "adult" in its orientation and is evocative of cabaret in Weimar Berlin or pre-WW II Shanghai.

From the point where a cast member takes your ticket the lobby space is designed with curved walls, soft colors and peep holes.  The aesthetic is erotic and not pornographic.  The intent is to tease and to stimulate.

The auditorium features, predictably, a thrust stage and looks a lot like it would be an ideal location to stage a production of "Cabaret."  The soft colors of the decor play against the steel truss work and spiral staircases.  The rigid structures contrast with the flowing lines and feminine curves.  This is not a dime store architectural critique, but again framing for the experience of the audience and in support of the show's performers.

To a very real extent, for the magic to happen, it makes the magician's work easier to have a magical environment.

* * *

I was fortunate enough to be allowed to explore the Auditorium just before it was demolished.

This was a decade after it had finally been abandoned for the last time.  After the last revival attempt had failed, after the last community theatre show had closed.  After it had served as a law library and after they had used its lobby to store materials used in the restoration of the Midland across the street.

The building had been built as a tribute to those who had sacrificed during the Civil War, had survived two world wars and even a fire that claimed its original stone facade only to fall victim to the onslaught of electronic media and to community indifference.

But even in the available light you could still experience the majesty of its design and get a sense of its function as a temple of art.

The unflattering daylight that stabbed through the open doors revealed that its fit and finishes had deteriorated over the years.  The auditorium had been repainted in a series of flat colors that were not only not complimentary to the space but also to one another.

But even in its last days I had a sense of what once had been.

I remember noticing the loading dock door in the upstage right corner.  It had been pushed open in order to keep the teams of explorers from injuring themselves and you could see in silhouette that it was a ten-foot door with a portion cut out to a height of maybe twelve or fourteen feet so that taller pieces of scenery could be accommodated.

In the dressing rooms, you could see where various performers had written their names over the years in an effort to establish some form of permanence in the otherwise transitory life of a performer.

From the unfinished floor of the trap room to the tangle of rope and cable that was evident on the pin rail, the backstage spaces were not glamorous but just enough to meet the needs of whatever show was playing.  Narrow passages, steep stairways and utilitarian rooms, these were the workplaces of the performers and technicians that made the magic that would entertain the audiences.

In Mike Caveney's book on Harry Kellar he includes a list of his tours and where they stopped.  In 1898, Kellar played Newark and, as far as I can tell, he would have had to have played The Auditorium--at least I would like to think that he did--and here I was roaming the same spaces.

In the trap room under the stage, I remember seeing the remnants of what must have been an elevator trap--a way for someone to disappear or reappear in the middle of the stage.  It was exciting to think that it might have been used by the likes of Kellar and his contemporaries.

While this has not directly about conjuring I do think it is important to look at all of the ingredients of a performance and the space is certainly a part of that.

Granted, today's performers have little say over when and where they perform and therefore must create their own space where magic can happen.  Not only must they manage the attention of the audience, but also their expectations.

What can the performer do to take control of the power in the relationship between themselves and the audience?

And now that I have provided some context and created some expectation, I will leave the resolution until our next meeting.

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