Industrializing the Theater


->asuai, observers of the course of events in the theater will say that the theater is not an industrial activity. Many of those who work in the theater will be still more emphatic about it. This is one of the major troubles with our theater, and this lack in our theater is a lack in our life. Drama goes hand in hand with the progress and achievements of humanity. The theater to-day needs the same aggressive spirit of experimentation that characterizes progressive industry. The quality of our drama would be enhanced if the theater were industrialized, which implies a modern and economical organ­ization, financial structure and stabilization.

The greatest progress that has recently taken place in the theater is within the confines of Russia. If there is any place where the theater is approaching a successful industrialization it is in Russia at the present moment. There, all theatrical entertainment is controlled and operated by the Government after the manner of a single industrial activity. They have gone at the theater with the same spirit and energy that they have gone at the building of tractors and dams, only they have been more successful because their

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dramatic talent is in excess of their engineering talent. The theater in Rus­sia is considered a fundamental necessity in terms of public education and recreation.

In the United States, there is nothing comparable to the organized theater as it exists in Russia, Germany or France. By an organized theater I do not mean a real-estate concern, nor merely a well-organized business office en­gaging and operating its talent on a tentative basis. The nearest approach we have now to an industrialized theater is the organization maintained by the Theater Guild of New York. The annual costs of this organization are assured by their subscribers. They are thus encouraged to produce a play that they believe to be good, even though they are not sure that it will run more than the six weeks required to enable all their subscribers to see it. If it does, they make a profit. It it doesn’t, they lose nothing.

The subscribers, on the other hand, are enabled to see the plays at a con­siderably reduced rate by subscribing to all six of the Theater Guild’s annual productions in advance. True, all of the subscribers may not care for one or two of the plays that are done each season, but they might feel the same way about plays produced by other managements. Payment in advance with the risk of witnessing a play that may not develop into a popular success is offset by the fact that any successful play produced by another management would probably cost two or three times the subscription price for a Guild success. Thus, in the long run, the Guild subscribers more than break even, financially and intellectually.

Although the building to house such an organization as I have in mind is decidedly a secondary factor in its ultimate success, nevertheless it is that phase of the subject to which we are limited here. A factory, an office, a man’s desk, or his wife’s house functions in accordance with the way it is organized. Satisfactory operation depends upon thoroughness in terms of

performance. The most efficient kitchen is the one in which the greatest number of frequently used articles are available in the shortest space of time, with the least number of steps on the part of the person doing the work. The same principle applies generally, and it applies to the theater.

I doubt if there are any factories where employees are more on their feet and have to waste more steps than actors do in the theater. The un­necessary distances they have to travel are frequently enormous, owing, for instance, to the location of dressing rooms in relation to the stage. Not only actors but executives and lesser members of the personnel are handi­capped by numberless similar disadvantages. The theater not only pos­sesses many of the complications of a factory but also of a school and educational system. It is due to the fact that it is made up of all these elements and more, that it should be industrialized.

A theater should be so planned that all of the departmental units, in­volved in the creation of a theatrical production, should be properly organ­ized in relation to one another and to the whole. These units should include the housing (in a work sense) of executives, the actors, and all other persons necessary to a production; housing requirements for the production of mate­rial such as scenery and costumes, and for storage; and, in addition, provi­sion for social and recreational activities, schooling and training facilities.

The first requisite of the theater is that along with everything else it must furnish recreation. If the audience cannot be induced into a state of restful­ness, of pleasure, of enjoyment, of receptiveness to entertainment, one can­not do with them what he wills, and this is necessary to achieve results in terms of the theater. The audience must be made susceptible to an exag­gerated extent. The spontaneity of youth, combined with sufficient intelli­gence to react to other than merely obvious points, is within every audience. To give an audience recreation, the theater must at the same time stimulate it.

In many ways, the present-day plan of our theaters does not contribute to this end. The interiors of most theaters to-day are horrible examples110 of not only bad taste but lack of theatrical foresight. The auditorium of any theater has a definite effect upon the receptivity of an audience, not only during a performance but prior to it. The auditorium, and more especially that part adjacent to the stage, should be as simple and neutral as possible in architec­tural and decorative treatment. The judgment, taste and design exemplified in ninety-five per cent of the theaters of America is the most atrocious dis­play of bad taste and waste of money that I know of anywhere. The theaters of no country in the world can compare with those of the United States in vulgar and cheap architectural decoration. In all, there are not more than a dozen thoroughly appropriate and good – looking theater interiors in our country.

An auditorium should not be considered as a thing apart from the stage. It should not be looked upon as a big hall with one wall knocked out, so that you seem to look into another room where a story is enacted.

It should be of such a character that the mo­ment the scene is dis­closed on the stage you

forget that you are in a theater. In this respect, a great deal depends, of course, upon the performance. Nevertheless, the best of performances is at a disad­vantage in most of our theaters. The test of a designer or of an architect comes when you ask him to do something simply. Any one can take a vast wall sur­face and break it up with gingerbread deco­ration of the gewgaw variety. But tell this same decorator that your taste is of a differ­ent order, that he may not do this for you, that you like quiet restful surroundings, that in fact you insist upon it — and see what happens! But be careful of your man — for there is a great difference between a wall sur­face kept simple in the hands of a fine, sensi­tive designer and one that is only left bare by a less able man.

The Repertory Theater (a development of Theater Number 6) is one conception of a building to house an industrialized thea­ter" ’ on a scale practical for any large city. Since it was designed for the proposed Chi­cago World Fair, it spreads out over more ground than it would if planned to occupy a portion of a city block. It contains four dif­ferent types of theaters and every other element necessary for producing, rehearsing and storing productions under one roof.

The central tower of this building is nineteen stories high. It houses re­hearsal rooms, workshops, scenery storage space, offices, and over one hundred large dressing rooms, each having outside windows and showers. From this

tower radiate a cabaret, a roof garden, a theater for children, one large thea­ter, and one intimate theater.117

The cabaret and roof garden accommodate two hundred and fifty persons. The main dining room is two stories high, with a balcony around the second floor. Kitchen and pantries are in the basement, with service elevators. Directly across from the entrance is a circular orchestra pit sunk below the level of the dance floor, and from which the dance floor radiates. Behind the orchestra pit is an elevated stage, with steps on either side leading down to the dance floor. A movable screen regulates the depth of the stage. The roof garden is rectangular in plan, with four terraces and a small circular orchestra space. A circular stair and elevator rises from the lobby to the balcony and roof garden.

There is a small theater for children, of the proscenium type, seating two hundred children on the main floor and sixty adults in a balcony where they would be almost invisible to the children.117 The stage is equipped so that it can also be used for marionette shows. This theater is rectangular in shape, with two side aisles. Above the auditorium is a rehearsal room. On the roof are terraces for outdoor dances, gymnasium exercises, and rehearsals.

The adult large and small auditoriums are identical in plan.117 The large auditorium seats seventeen hundred and the small auditorium seven hundred and fifty people. In both, the main axis of stage and auditorium is on the diagonal of the square.

If ten architects were employed to design ten theaters to meet the specifications of



ten “ practical ” theatrical business men, these ten theaters, as regards stage and auditorium, would almost certainly duplicate one another in all funda­mental features. In each, we would have the conventional rectangular stage against one side of the rectangle, footlights along the front of the stage, visible orchestra pit, and the proscenium arch framing the stage and definitely sepa­rating audience from actors."1"2

If a designer conversant by long experience with the limitations of the present theater were given the same opportunity, he would undoubtedly de­sign stage and auditorium without regard for the conventional peep-show pattern, considering not tradition but the needs of to-day’s dramatists, direc­tors, and actors. There are many ways of solving the problem. In 1914 I evolved one solution which has several advantages and has been utilized in over fifty theaters by various architects since its description by Claude Bragdon in The Architectural Record of September, 1922. Given two ground plots identical in square foot area: on the one hand, the typical theater with the auditorium and stage centered on the longitudinal axis of the plot."1 On the other hand, a theater with the auditorium and stage centered on the diagonal axis."4 The shaded areas of each diagram represent the space not utilized by the audience while sitting in their seats, witnessing the play. The efficient, unshaded area in the longitudinal axis theater at the left is fifty-six per cent. The efficient area in the diagonal axis principle is eighty-four per cent. Furthermore, the total depth of the stage in the left plan is only twenty – five feet, while the stage depth of the diagonal axis theater is forty feet. The stage area in the diagonal axis theater is twice that of the other. So much for the basic features. The diagonal axis principle has been applied in both of the theaters in the Repertory Theater group."2

Imagine yourself entering an auditorium without aisles. The stage is not framed by an arch and is without a curtain — apparently as open as outdoors.



In fact, due to its illumination, you can see nothing on it — it is a spacious void. Not even an orchestra pit is to be seen. The curved front of the stage is separated from the spectators merely by a low line of steps along its entire width. From an orchestra pit that is not in view, but is nevertheless between audience and actors and from which the conductor may see all of the audi­torium and stage without being seen, come strains of music. Arranged in quarter circles concentric with the curve of the stage front, widely separated rows of seats form an amphitheater without being interrupted by aisles. Each

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row of seats is its own aisle. You reach your seat by passing along an aisle­wide space that separates your row from the row in front, without stumbling over the feet of any one already seated.

Except for the low flight of steps at the front of the stage and two softly curving side jams which lose themselves in the curve of the ceiling, the stage

is undivided from the auditorium.11’ Thus, a sense of unity, intimacy, and audience-participation pervades the theater, arising in part from the fact that the same great domed ceiling spans actors and audience.114 By the indi­cated seating arrangement, each person is allowed nearly twice the amount of floor space usually allotted.117 The space between any two rows of seats is four and a half feet, the entrances being from either side instead of from the back. Every seat has plenty of leg room. There are no balconies or galleries.

In a theater of this sort, the scene shifter will find the long-accepted appur­tenances of his trade conspicuous by their absence. Looking aloft, he sees the vast sweep of the cyclorama constituting both walls and ceiling, and nowhere the customary wilderness of ropes, curtains, battens and borders. The scenery is set on two movable platforms in the basement.11* These platforms are raised and lowered by hydraulic power to and from the level of the auditorium. In their elevated position at the auditorium level they form the stage floor. One stage platform is being " set ” while the other is being played; the substitution, which takes only thirty seconds, is made behind a curtain of light or a moment’s darkness. The stage lowers into a shallow pit which brings its floor level with the basement floor.114 Without stopping, it is carried from this posi­tion to one side, a distance equal to its diameter, on tracks set in the floor of the pit. The other stage, already " set ” for the next scene, automatically slides into position and is raised to the auditorium level.

No curtain is required in this theater. The most elaborate or simple change of scene can be made in less time than is required for a " quick change ” by the present method. To comply with the law of most States, a steel curtain is provided for purposes of emergency to separate the basement, where the scen­ery is, from the auditorium. It is on the ceiling of the basement and slides horizontally across the opening. Since every row of seats has its own direct exit there are twice as many exits as in the ordinary type of theater. As the

result of a lecture given by me in 1922 at the invitation of Harvey Corbett at the New York Architectural League, the New York State Standard Building Code was revised in 1924 to permit this type of curtain and stage.

Underneath the auditorium, there is a broad, quadrant-shaped foyer, serv­ing as a spacious promenade, with smoking rooms, cafe, and other auxiliary spaces adjacent.11* On this same level, below the steps leading from the audi­torium to the stage, is the orchestra chamber.1 “ The sound comes through perforations in the risers of the steps. The orchestra room accommodates sixty musicians. The conductor has a clear view of the stage and auditorium by means of a large rotating periscope, situated in the center of the first row of



Light galleries are set into the dome of the auditorium and are controlled from the stage switch­board. The lamps are located above and behind the spectators and concealed from them. The stage switchboard is located as is the orchestra, and the electrician through his periscope has a clear view of stage and auditorium.

One of the outstanding distinc­tions of modern stagecraft, though very little used, is the ex­traordinary extent to which light can be made to intensify any scene, serious or comic, in any type of production. Changes of

scene and of people can be made in darkness with no curtain neces­sary to cut off the audi­ence from what is hap­pening on the stage. By a skillful use of light, objects can be revealed or concealed at will. Costumes can be trans­formed. Convincingly distinctive locales can be suggested without scenery — only a prop­erty or two — entirely by light manipulation. The theater I propose, with scene and actors thrust forward into the auditorium instead of being kept behind the proscenium pic­ture frame, takes on a still greater value for both actor and audiences and be­comes desirable and practicable, due largely to the great advance of the last decade in the use and control of artificial light.

The conventional theater with its proscenium frame is adaptable only to the peep-show type of play, which has adapted itself to the peep-show type of theater. It is a purely two-dimensional medium and seldom used in more than the across-stage dimension. It is not at all suitable for the presentation of such three-dimensional forms of staging as are necessary to obtain correct values from Greek and Elizabethan or Oriental drama, nor for the new, on­coming drama that will develop as a natural consequence of’ present-day thought and feeling. These restrictions which are now generally taken for


granted impose very confining limitations on the dramatist, clipping the wings of inspiration and depriving drama of the freedom and the privi­leges that are accorded the novel and the cinema. The release of dramatist, director, actor, and audience from the limitations of the present-day conven­tional theater will not of itself bring about great drama. A great deal depends upon the spirit, power and clarity of expression of a human being. Neverthe­less, a human being who expresses himself through what we call a creative medium is most susceptible to his environment, the conditions and the limita­tions around him, especially to those under which he is obliged to work. The release of dramatists, directors, actors and audiences from the limitations of the present-day conventional type of theater would be a tremendous stimulus for the drama. There is no type of presentation that would not decidedly profit by it.

The thing that is to-day holding back this desirable change is the type of manager who is in the theater primarily for the money he can make out of it.



For instance, the Shuberts are not in the theatrical producing business at all in the true sense of the word. They are real-estate operators who produce plays so that their theaters may not be empty.

From the viewpoint of real-estate operators, who are incidentally theatrical producers, they reason that there is a distinct advantage in building every stage like every other one. They mount their productions with the same logic.

They have innumerable storehouses of scenery, costumes and other equipment from past shows waiting to be used on one of these stages. Not one tenth of this material is used annually. But what is used is monotonously repeti­tious. The principle of standardization is right but a principle that does not produce quality is being used wrongly. With a little ingenuity in design, a better economical record could be achieved and gain the equally im­portant latitude and variety necessary to a permanently successful theater organization.

If, instead of seventy theaters in New York, all of identically the same type, we had seventy of seven different types, it would seem that the problem would be more complicated. On the contrary! In Russia and Germany that is


exactly the situation and there is nothing in the least complicated about it. The assumption that different types of theaters would complicate the the­atrical situation is somewhat like saying that it would complicate matters for a motor-car manufacturer to build a roadster in the same factory in which he builds a limousine. The point is that this desirable change could and should be brought about, and when a thing should be done, there is always a way.

There is no more emphatic way of bringing an idea to the attention of a mass audience and doing it with great force and conviction than in the thea­ter. A play with a strong idea has an amazing effect upon hundreds of thou­sands of people in a short space of time. The trouble is that so few plays have an idea of any value more than momentary entertainment. Dramatists to-day are in a rut. One follows another in endless repetition. With one or two excep­tions annually, those who do experiment turn out half-baked results.

We know that the world has experienced at least one great theater; a thea­ter of momentous power and inspiration, regardless from what standpoint it is considered; a theater that drew audiences five times as large as any motion- picture theater we have to-day. That theater belonged to the Greeks a few hundred years В. C. The object of the Greek theater may be said to have been the rousing of vast, overwhelming tides of thought and feeling in the masses. In modern times we have nothing to compare with this. Between the Greek dramatic phenomena and the theatrical fare with which we are familiar, there is a vast difference.

As a result of thought on this subject, some ten years ago, I designed a stage that would fulfill the necessary dramatic requirements for producing the " Divine Comedy ” of Dante.120 The stage is designed for this production alone, but it could be used for other dramas on a similar scale. Recently, the plans for a theater to house it were completed at the request of the Architec­tural Commission of the Chicago World’s Fair.121 Architecturally, it provides


all the necessary facilities, such as assembly rooms, dressing rooms, foyers, promenade and open-air terrace for the production of a great variety of spectacles and for the accommodation of a mass audience. The auditorium of this theater is designed to accommodate five thousand people.122 Like a Greek theater, its plan is a half-circle facing the stage without balconies. No pros­cenium or curtain divides the auditorium from the stage. A great single dome spans the stage and part of the auditorium; the remaining part of the audi­torium is covered by a ceiling that joins the dome and curves down into the side walls.121

In the United States, we have nothing to compare with Oberammergau, or the Bayreuth Festival or the Salzburg Festival. They were the creation and the spirit of their age. For our age, we have as yet found no equivalent. There are millions of people, most of them from the Old Country, in our industrial communities, who have an inherent liking for such forms of entertainment. Do you realize what it would mean to such communities124 to have theaters that they could use for their kind of entertainment? It is conceivable that industry may eventually recognize the importance of furnishing the organ­ization and financial structure upon which such an effort would depend. Considering the tremendous sums industrial philanthropists have spent for widespread material benefits, and for intellectual beneficiaries such as col-


leges and libraries, it is conceivable that they will recognize the value of such an idea to their community.

The Russian Government recognizes the tremendous value of the theater and its fast growing offspring, motion pictures. It has heavily financed sev­eral of the largest and most enterprising theatrical and motion-picture com­panies in the world. Of the Russian theater America knows little for the reason that none of its companies have left Russia. Several of their film pro­ductions have been shown in the United States and have had tremendous effect on our own picture technique. Two of them I rank among the half dozen finest pictures that have ever been made. The significant fact is the Russians’ recognition of the importance of the theater as a relief for the pent-up emo­tional capacity of their mass audience. The problem in America takes rank with the ever increasing problem of living not materially but spiritually. It has nothing to do with making a living. The outstanding error that is being made in this age and the most justifiable criticism of the age, is that not enough attention is being given to this other side of life.

Updated: September 30, 2015 — 8:44 am