Theatre practitioners seek many things in a performance space but the quality valued most is freedom. Freedom (or apparent freedom) to determine the relationship of actor and audience, to decide when and how to introduce the audience to the play, freedom to give character or remove it from the space in which the play will be performed, freedom to rise or appear to rise to a great height, descend to a depth, to be large and epic or small and intimate. Freedom to explore the imagination prompted by the demands of the text.
Elizabethan drama -and particularly Shakespeare- demands a space which allows the audience to complete the images invoked verbally on the stage with their own imagination. Such a space must not, therefore, provide merely the armature for a self-sufficient visual world generated by built settings, which stop the imagination at a predetermined, designed, visual threshold. It must, rather, in itself provide a guide and support to the imagination by retaining a sufficient trace of the ‘real’ world such that imagination has a starting point or launchpad. The space (its walls, form, floor, circulation spaces) must tell a certain story itself, without décor or other accoutrements, but it must leave enough freedom in order for any story to be told in the space. It must strike a careful balance between having its own identity, and putting that identity at the service of Shakespeare’s myriad theatrical worlds.
There should be something that provides a background resistance to any theatrical world projected into it; but the theatre itself should also take on, like a chameleon, the colour and the character of whatever world with which it is suffused. It should be possible to add elements, and also to take them away, and also to use the space as it is in its basic condition, without modification. It should provide an inspiration and an anchoring point for the work of the designer.
There should be no fixed or obvious architectural distinction between the world of the audience and the world of the performers, although the space should allow for this distinction to be made if required. The acoustic of the space must, likewise, be made to function well without amplification in any number of configurations; there should be something just and natural about the sound-ambience of the space in its basic character, as soon as one walks in.
The theatre should provide conditions of physical and mental security, such as to allow the audience to feel free to abandon themselves to the performance. It should aid in the act of public gathering, an increasingly unfamiliar activity today. There should be something that heightens the atmosphere and the attention before any aspect of the spectacle has been expressed. The space should feel special, reserved, protected, but not by using the conventional codes of the theatre (‘special’ materials, rich finishing, things which artificially create the sense of an occasion out of the ordinary).
Someone who has no experience of the theatre should not feel put off by going into it; there will be a mixture of atmospheres both familiar from everyday life, and also slightly separate, slightly heightened. One should not feel completely cut off from the flow of urban and cultural life outside. The theatre should also feel comfortable to work in during the day; the friendly/heightened qualities needed for performance are important too if the space is to be used for rehearsal. The stripped-down character, encouraging economic use of scenic materials, should allow it to be rapidly transformed into a neutral space for preparatory work. Likewise it should be possible to imagine the space accepting other uses: parties, meetings, conferences, ceremonies. It should be a public space in a broader sense of that term than is usually applied for the theatre.