Beyond the West End


With its lively West End theatre scene, London is without a doubt one of the best places in the world to see a hit musical or provocative play. Stars abound on Shaftsbury Avenue, where many of the commercial West End theatres are located. But, as savvy London theatregoers know, many of the most exciting things take place far from the West End. The Royal National Theatre, for example, is across the River Thames on the South Bank, where it serves up a tempting mix-and-match menu in its three theatres. There is also quite a buzz about the productions at the Donmar Warehouse near Covent Garden, where director Sam Mendes cooked up the award-winning revival of Cabaret. To add sizzle to the scene, England instituted a program in the mid to late 90s that funneled monies from the National Lottery program to the British Arts Council, and grants were then made to many institutions for building and renovation projects. Among these are the Royal Court, a theatre company dedicated to new plays and playwrights, located on Sloane Square, where it has stood since 1888, and the new Sadler's Wells, the brainchild of Ian Albery. The Royal Court did a top-to-toe renovation, updating the house without disturbing its personal sense of purpose, while Sadler's Wells is a brand-new structure sitting on a site steeped in London's theatrical history. Both of these projects have come to fruition and re-opened within the past year, each with a focused vision and state-of-the art technology to help communicate it.

Three and a half years and 26 million pounds British sterling have gone into the renovation of the historic Royal Court, a theatre that almost closed for lack of funding yet tenaciously fought to hang on. It won the battle and now has two well-designed theatres to support a very ambitious season. Both theatres are named in honor of the Jerwood Foundation, which supplied a large donation to help complete the project.

The Royal Court facade has remained essentially the same, with the addition of a shallow balcony over the main doors. The balcony was shown on the original plans for the theatre, but was either never added or removed sometime during the theatre's long history. Theatre Projects Consultants began a feasibility study in 1994 when it became clear that the building needed structural repairs as well as technical updating. Architectural firm Haworth Tompkins (Steve Tompkins and Graham Haworth) was brought aboard in February 1995, and the theatre re-opened five years later in February 2000.

The new theatre lobby has a red curved wall that follows the line of the last row of seats, and an old gray-and-brown mosaic tile floor that was unearthed during the renovation project. It was left "as is," and fits in nicely with the rough, unfinished walls (like one might find at Peter Brook's theatre in Paris or the Harvey/Majestic Theatre in Brooklyn), some with peeling paint and exposed brick that reveal the "history" of the building. A former exterior staircase has been incorporated into the interior for access to the upstairs theatre, and there is also a new elevator in place for handicapped access to all levels, including the new lower level.

One of the most interesting chapters of this success story is the new restaurant and bar area that actually sits under the street and part of Sloane Square in front of the theatre. This space was excavated as far as possible, stopped only by the London Underground line that runs next door. Lights set in glass blocks create skylights on the sidewalk in front of the theatre, allowing light into the space above the bar, while architectural lighting designed by London's award-winning lighting designer Mark Henderson gives the room a theatrical look.

The Royal Court's main stage is the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, a 400-seat horseshoe with a proscenium arch that was widened by 8" during the renovation to increase the opening onto the small stage, and to improve sightlines. "It is still a very small, intimate theatre," says Andy Hayles, project manager for Theatre Projects Consultants, who worked with Royal Court's technicians and designers on the lighting, sound, and rigging aspects of the project.

The steep upper balcony was re-raked to improve seating, and the lighting and sound control booths behind the last row of balcony seats were made larger and higher. The lighting booth has a double-glazed window that can remain open during tech rehearsals, while the sound booth is open at all times. A third booth serves as a director's box. "The lighting designer can also sit in the director's box or in any one of three positions in the house with a laptop or remote console to program," notes Johanna Town, head of lighting for the Royal Court. This box also serves as a position for followspots, though Town notes, "We rarely use them, so we didn't buy any."

"The major improvement to the theatre," says Hayles, "is the new flytower, which is 10' taller than the old one. It is a vast improvement, with a better flying height and better working conditions." The new rigging, by Del Star in Suffolk, England, includes 35 cross-stage counterweight sets and two upstage-to-downstage counterweight sets. There are six manual winch bars under the fly floor, two motorized winches over the orchestra pit, and six point hoists for automated flying of scenery using a Bytecraft control console. The new system is totally flexible as the point hoists can be placed anywhere in new steel grid, which provides technicians room to walk around standing up.

"This entire renovation project started because the flytower was crumbling," explains Town. "Originally we thought we would just rebuild the tower, but we needed to close the theatre to do this, so we decided to do the electrics and stage rigging as well." Lighting positions include a ladder on the front of the upper balcony both stage right and stage left, as the upper level does not come all the way around to the side boxes.

There are also small disk plates that cover universal fixing points to hang equipment on the proscenium arch and throughout the auditorium, including some rather unexpected places. These can serve to hang loudspeakers or lighting bars as needed. "Depending on the show, we can clutter the auditorium or keep it very simple. If we go to theatre-in-the-round, we can put lights everywhere," says Town. "Flexibility is the key."

The stage lighting system, as well as sound and communications, was installed by Bristol-based Stage Electrics. The stage lighting, worklights, houselights, and architectural lighting can all be controlled from any one of the Strand Lighting consoles. The downstairs theatre has one 530i console and one 510i console that runs in synch as a backup to the 530i, with five EC90 Strand Supervisor digital dimmer racks and numerous Strand Shownet nodes. The upstairs theatre has two additional EC90 dimmer racks, with one 520i and one 510i Strand console.

There is also a Strand Premiere system to run the architectural lighting system, with an AMX touch-screen unit, which interfaces via DMX and MIDI. The dimmers are located two floors below the stage (which is one level below the street). Most importantly, from a lighting point of view, the entire building is networked via the Strand Shownet system, with both theatres, a rehearsal room, the lobby, restaurant, and other front-of-house areas usable as performance spaces with total control from the main console. "We are not the only theatre to have this Strand system, but we may well be the only one to have the whole building networked like this," says Town.

The extensive fixture package includes Robert Juliat fresnels and PCs, which Town says she likes because "they are hearty, with a wider lens size. And I like the barndoors; they are very flexible, and each leaf rotates." There are also over 100 Strand SL zooms, four Strand Pirouette automated luminaires, and two City Theatrical AutoYokes. ETC Source Four PARs are used in the upstairs theatre. "They don't buzz and are not as hot as PAR cans," says Town. "It is also easier to change out the lenses."

To create the new Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, the roofline was raised 1.5m in the center (no changes were allowed along the facade side of the roof). "The concept is like a loft, with exposed beams at the top of a building," notes Town, who likens the space to an attic, with custom seat pads designed to look like the old suitcases one might find there.

"The challenge construction-wise was the acoustics," notes Hayles. "There are triple-glazed windows with a 200mm air gap and blackout shutters, which look better from the exterior than the black curtains that were there before." This attic-like black box can hold up to 100 people with a management- imposed minimum of 65. The space is also completely flexible, with seating on risers that can be removed completely and stored in the basement or used in a variety of configurations. The leather-trimmed fabric pads attach to the seats and backs of the risers with Velcro.

A small mezzanine serves as extra seating, as a performance area, or for equipment storage. The control booth is on this level as well, where the stage manager runs the sound and lighting. "The system is as simple as possible, with just one button," says Town, who notes that there are 300 outlets for fixtures and 100 dimmers in the space, with the same universal fixing points to hang lights or scenery anyplace in the room. There are also six remote points with ethernet and DMX options so that the console can be used in different positions. The show upstairs can also be monitored on the main lighting console downstairs, and all of the equipment can be moved from one theatre to another.

Paul Arditti, resident sound designer at the Royal Court, describes the goal of the new audio system as "creating an infrastructure that would last at least a decade. We'll get this money only once; we had to get it right." Luckily for Arditti, he was able to purchase the equipment he liked as well. "We put sound boxes, or input and outlet points, everywhere we could think of, for speakers, video, mics, communications, and infrared systems. This allows us to do unexpected things; it can be very exciting. Even though we are still in a proscenium theatre, we have secret facilities up our sleeve to do something special and different." This fully patchable sound system is built around a 24-channel Soundcraft K1 console and d+b speakers from Germany. The amplifier racks share the dimmer room.

The downstairs theatre has exceptionally good acoustics for spoken drama, due to the geometry of the room and its surfaces. "It was paramount not to destroy that in the renovation," Arditti notes. He virtually never uses sound reinforcement, except for music and sound effects or to counter a particular acoustic problem. In addition to the open-fronted sound booth behind the balcony, there is also a mix position in the rear of the orchestra level, with sockets behind a panel in the floor.

Equipment downstairs includes a Cadac K-Type console, Sennheiser, DPA, Neumann, Shure, and Crown mics, and speakers from Meyer, Tannoy, and JBL.

Upstairs, the mansard roof and exposed beams help diffuse the sound in a natural and warm way. Each theatre is as acoustically isolated as possible, from the outside and from each other, with the sound from the nearby Underground line an occasional external noise. Acoustician Paul Gillieron helped with the sound isolation, which includes double-thick walls and floating floors, as well as air gaps between certain adjacent rooms. "By decoupling the rooms, there is no mechanical noise," notes Arditti.

In spite of the major renovation of the Royal Court, the auditorium looks much as it did before. "I'd been away for three years," says Town. "But when I walked in, I felt like I was at home."

The newest version of Sadler's Wells Theatre, which opened in the fall of 1999, is the sixth theatre to be built on an historic site in the Islington section of London, and it's on a site which has housed a theatre for over 300 years. The first venue built there by Dick Sadler in 1683, was replaced in 1764, with each theatre eventually torn down to make room for a new one. In 1994, fundraising for the newest Sadler's Wells was begun by Ian Albery, whose single-minded passion for the project has resulted in a 48-million-pounds-British-sterling theatre designed primarily for dance performances. What Albery has built, in conjunction with UK architects Nicholas Hare (exteriors) and Renton Howard Wood Levine (interiors), is a contemporary theatre with a soaring glass facade and highly flexible technical systems.

The current theatre incorporates steelwork from the 1931 Lilian Baylis version of the theatre, home of the Sadler's Wells Opera and Ballet companies, with side walls from 1870 and foundations from both 1790 and 1870. Improvements in the new theatre include a larger stage and taller flytower. "The challenge was to create a touring house for dance companies from all over the world," says Albery, chief executive at Sadler's Wells. "We don't control their sets or how they are built, so we have to accommodate everything that is thrown at us, and fit it all in."

This means that the theatre has to have ultimate flexibility. One of the ways it achieves this is in the unique rigging system with virtually silent, vibration-free Whispering Winches, supplied and installed by Krupp, a German company, with the Nomad computer-control system by Stage Technologies in London. "The theatre is in the protected line of view from St. Paul's to Alexandra Palace, so we couldn't take the flytower any higher for motors," Albery explains.

There are 72 linesets with a rated speed of 1.4m per second, or up to 2.4m per second with just a gauze drop. Each can lift up to 600 kilos, with 18 moveable point hoists located in the center of the grid for ultimate flexibility. "The system is very fast and efficient," says Albery, "and is a dream for fast turnarounds. We can get more performances into a week and save money on a weekly basis in spite of the high capital investment."

The stage at Sadler's Wells, which measures 15m by 15m (54' x 54'), is conveniently at street level, which works well for loading in scenery. It is possible to drive a large truck, or any vehicle, up to the size of a London bus, right onto stage left. On stage right, there is another entrance and a dock where smaller vans can drive onto the stage for delivery of sound and lighting equipment. A large elevator carries necessary items upstairs to three rehearsal studios.

The stage itself is a special dance floor, designed by Mark Foley in the UK. It has sprung modular sections, with 1.4m squares that can be taken out. There is no fixed machinery; instead staircases and traps can be put in as needed. It is also possible to bring in a false floor and lay it over the dance floor for opera or theatre performances, such as Noh, Kabuki, or musical works.

The orchestra lift system, designed by Gala and installed by Telestage Associates in the UK, consists of three 18" Spiralifts, which raise the pit to stage level or move to 10" above the stage to hide a false stage with a turntable that can be moved into place. The pit is large enough to hold two rows of seats, or up to 80 musicians. Two additional banana-shaped stage lifts can each hold one extra row of seats as well, and all three lifts can move in unison.

The acoustic treatment in the auditorium allows for various configurations. To create a larger volume acoustically for the use of live music, perforated mesh panels that give the rectangular theatre a crisp contemporary look have been placed in front of timbered walls to add richness to the sound. For recorded music, which requires more absorbency, the side walls open to reveal acoustic panels of sliding timber, and drapes come down from boxes in the ceiling. The London office of Arup Acoustics designed the acoustic treatments, with Richard Cowell serving as project manager, while the sound-reinforcement equipment was specified by Carr & Angier in Bath, England; Peter Angier served as project manager.

The mesh panels are all hinged and can open to reveal pipes for hanging equipment or platforms that can be used for actors, musicians, or audience members. There are five levels of these galleries along the side walls, and they connect to backstage on every other level, allowing access for performers and technicians. The mesh is a steel-gray reflective metal that takes any color projected onto it. "You can change colors and change the total ambiance of the room," explains Albery. "You can also project images and gobos onto the mesh."

The safety curtain is hard-edged and good for dance companies, who like its "guillotine effect," Albery says. It can move at variable speeds and be used instead of the house curtain. It also provides an acoustical seal when clamped onto the proscenium arch. This allows an orchestra to rehearse in the pit while technical work or another rehearsal is taking place on the stage.

The house curtain is made of blue velour with red and gray mesh gauze, to blend with the walls and seats, and it changes color under the lights. "You can play with it to match or contrast the tone of the auditorium," says Albery. "It's about the theatre being an experience before the performance actually starts."

In fact, the facade of the theatre becomes a large video display at night, with images both front- and rear-projected by nine Barco 3200 LCD projectors onto a 24-sq.-m. screen made of layered glass sandwiched with PDLC (polymer-dispersed liquid crystal). The screen was built and installed by Electrosonic Ltd. in the UK, with programming of images by the Electrosonic C-Through(TM) program, and processing via their Picbloc-3(TM) system. The images on this "floating" screen contributes to Albery's stated belief that "the show starts on the street."

The space is also enormously flexible in terms of lighting; it was designed without fixed bridges, so designers have unlimited options. Three front-of-house bridges can be placed in any desired spot out over the audience. A forestage grid allows scenery and lighting to be hung without difficulty and, as Albery describes it, "elegantly." This can fly out a full 30' in the new, higher flytower to move completely out of sight.

The stage lighting system was specified by Carr & Angier, Peter Angier, project manager, and installed by the London office of Northern Light, with Paul McEwan as project manager. The system was designed with three dimmer rooms: one near the flytower, one front-of-house near the lighting bridges, and the third under the stage to minimize cable runs.

The dimming and control system includes: Strand LD90 dimmers (510 in the main auditorium; 252 for the architectural lighting); a Strand 550i console in the control room; a portable Strand 520 console, which can be used by a designer for programming or as a backup unit; and a Strand 510i rackmounted unit that can also be used as a backup. A Strand 530i console will be used in the smaller Lilian Baylis Theatre, or double for the 550i.

The consoles have Strand's server software, which allows the system to be controlled by a network with any number of computer terminals. Each console also has 1,200 channels of dimmer control with 600 attributes, which allows touring companies to bring in extra dimmers or moving lights, and still maintain control through any single console. Sadler's Wells also has Strand's Shownet system, which adds ethernet as well as DMX to all dimmers in the three control rooms.

The lighting fixture inventory, supplied by White Light in London, includes a wide range of Strand instruments, including 17 Pirouette 2kW remote focus automated fixtures, 24 Alto 2kW PCs, 11 Orion 1kW groundrows, 11 Iris cyc lights, and 140 Brio ellipsoidals. There are also 36 Wybron CXI color changers.

The architectural lighting system is run by three Strand Premiere systems: one for the auditorium, one for the foyer, and one for the exteriors. The dimmers for the architectural lighting are in six locations throughout the theatre and can be controlled from the central control room, with a variety of presets for different occasions. Worklights run from a Northern Lights System 2000, which has programmable worklight levels for daytime or performance times.

The sound system was also designed to be flexible, with eight 2-way EAW JF260 loudspeakers over the proscenium arch, with EAW JF200 and SB180P subwoofers on either side of the stage. JBL Control I speakers are installed at the rear of the stalls, in the balconies, and for infill at the front of the stage. There is also a DDA 48-channel CS-8 mixing console, used in front-of-house positions. The audio equipment was supplied by The Sound Department in London.

What Albery has added to the London theatre scene is a dynamic new proscenium theatre that feels intimate in spite of its size and seats that are appropriately raked for good sightlines. The history of the place, including the ancient well that gives the theatre its name, has been preserved in a sharply modern setting that offers ultimate flexibility to its users. "I hardly ever have to say no," quips Albery. "The whole principle of this theatre is to be able to say yes."