Through August 14, New Yorkers will have access to a unique opportunity, namely that of seeing five of Shakespeare’s best plays performed in an environment not too terribly different from that in which they were originally showcased in Elizabethan England. As part of the Lincoln Center Festival and to celebrate its 50th year, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has erected a near facsimile of its brand new Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST) in Stratford-upon-Avon within the drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory. There, the RSC is putting on such Shakespeare favorites as As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, The Winter’s Tale, and King Lear, all within the intimate confines of a temporary steel-structured 975-seat thrust-stage auditorium modeled on the cozy arrangements of the Globe, Rose, and other Renaissance period playhouses.
Courtesy Park Avenue Armory
To understand what now occupies the Armory it is best to begin with the recent changes that the RSC has made to its Stratford-upon-Avon home base. The original RST was a 1,400-seat art deco cinema-style theater designed by Elizabeth Scott and opened in 1932. While this theater had its virtues, its back seats were more than 88 feet away from the stage, making it difficult for those seated there (most notably school groups) to take part in the drama. To improve this experience, the RSC hired a design team led by Bennetts Associates of London to deliver “an auditorium Shakespeare might recognize.”
Shakespeare wrote for a theater in which actors and audiences shared the same space. By reducing the number of seats to 1,040 and selecting a thrust-stage design—where the audience surrounds the stage on three sides—the team halved the distance of the furthest seat from where the actors strut and fret. Bennetts also settled upon a faceted auditorium based on a 12-sided polygon reminiscent of the Globe and supported the two upper tiers with Miesian steel cruciform columns placed near the edge of the balcony.
The purist view of theater design is that if there is a column then there is a problem. However, adding columns provides a front to the architecture that makes it part of the scenery. The columns also allow the tiers to sit much closer together, whereas cantilevers would make them higher and further apart. In addition, the column and beam construction harkens back to the timber building of Elizabethan times and creates small, subdivided communities within the theater, providing an experience where everyone feels that they are in their own private box.
The thrust stage does create acoustical challenges. Since the audience surrounds the stage on three sides, it is inevitable that at some point during the play the actors will have their backs to much of the crowd, casting their voices away from them. To ensure that everyone can hear, sound had to be bounced around the theater. This was accomplished by installing wooden panels in the railings of the balconies and keeping the rear walls (also wooden) as close to the last seats as possible. The most challenged seats were actually at the foot of the stage, where sound threatened to fly over the heads of the crowd. Additional panels directly behind these first seats keep the sound bouncing back to their ears. At the Armory, the team also placed acoustical sails up around the fly space, keeping the actors’ voices from escaping into the cavernous drill hall.
Stephanie Berger and Peter Cook
To prepare for the Armory show, the RSC staff built a mirror image of Bennetts’ RST in their workshop in Stratford-upon-Avon. Some differences, of course, were inevitable. Rather than use the cruciform steel columns they used more economical and lighter hollow tube sections. The number of seats was also reduced slightly. The entire assembly was shop-fabricated in sections and then packed into 46 shipping containers before making the trip across the Atlantic. Once in New York, it took the RSC 15 days to erect the auditorium within the Armory, connecting the sections with some 18,000 bolts, nuts, and washers. Even the packing containers were used in the construction, making up a platform for the backstage as well as space for costume and prop storage.
The difference in the ventilation systems at the RSC and at the Armory is also worth noting. In Stratford-upon-Avon, the ventilation is under the seats. Cool air enters there and then drifts up as it gets warm. The temporary auditorium, however, uses the air conditioning system of the armory, which is pumped in through two large ducts that cross the ceiling. Feeder ducts were patched onto these ducts to deliver air to the top of the theater. This created a challenge, because the top is where the hot lights are, and the hot lights create convection currents that force air up. Intakes at the ground level, however, draw the air down through the space, keeping everyone as cool as cucumbers.