by Jez Bond

Following in my education programme, we’ve had enough of the high faluting West End, the RST, the glamour, the glitz – we wanted some ‘Fringe’. Something cutting edge, something real man! So, last week Jez and I went to the Network Theatre, under Waterloo Station to see Stockholm by Bryony Lavery – 2 actors, 60 minutes, no interval, very uncomfortable seats. The play was okay, really nice set design, good performances, nice lighting design, lots of f’ing and c words from the female character – gives it a bit of edge, shows we’re not mainstream dude!

The Network Theatre is an amateur company, originally founded as the Southern Railway Dramatic Society (SRDS) in 1939. They receive no grants or subsidies, and are located in a railway arch, off a service road, in a difficult to find tunnel by the side of Waterloo.

The theatre can hold up to 70 people and there were about 20 people in attendance and judging by the list of names on the door I would say only half of us were paying – at £8/ ticket thats maybe £80 for the night! Jez tells me that is about usual for a fringe performance.

The entrance leads in to the main auditorium space and then the bar is off that with the toilets. The bar had a few trendy young people in it, lounging on some old sofas wearing difficult glasses and challenging shoes – I swear one guy was reading Chekhov – a bottle of lager was £2.50 so not much mark up at all, I don’t think they are making any extra cash from the bar!

What struck me most, and I have seen this in other small venues, was that the spaces all felt a bit unfriendly, a real lack of atmosphere. The auditorium was, I can only assume ‘flexible’, but was arranged as an end on stage, quite narrow, so the layout and rake of the seats (to get the 70 seats) was such that the back seats were 9 rows from the stage – so at least 8.5m from the action – surely an arrangement of 50 or 60 seats but with a greater intimacy and thought would be preferable, particularly in a small fringe venue like this? The bar had the most unfriendly, bland lighting imaginable, it really felt quite awful and draining.

I’ve come across several small venues that feel ill considered, lack spatial legibility, are shabby and cheap or worse boring and I genuinely believe that they don’t have to be. It’s a lack of a cohesive design or an understanding of ‘space’ in the wider sense of design – what they all do brilliantly is the stage bit, the theatrical bit – it’s the building bit though that lets them down.

What’s interesting to me as an architect is that none of these things are related to cost or expenditure, they are simply related to a lack of knowledge and experience in architectural/ interior design, lighting, atmosphere etc outside of stage set design. I am in no way criticising the Network Theatre, or any other small venue that lacks atmosphere, these guys are simply trying to do their best – what I’m trying to understand is how we get theatre managers, owners, artistic directors etc to ask for advice, where do they go to get good advice that will be free or at the very least very cheap, advice that will lift their spaces from mundane to brilliant or atmospheric?

We recently went on a bar tour of a whole gang of bars in Clerkenwell, Shoreditch and then Crouch End and Finsbury Park to look for examples and inspiration for the bar at The Park Theatre. What all of these spaces had, even if you didn’t particularly like them, was a sense of atmosphere and a depth of thought about how the different elements fit together. From the front door handle to the colour of the walls to the bar top finish to the lighting it all ‘hung together’ to create a sense of place over and above the atmosphere created by the people. What I’m trying to understand is why theatres, particularly fringe theatres, seem to either believe that it doesn’t matter what the building or space is like or how to achieve something better.

Each year the charity Shelter runs an event called ‘Architect in the House’ where home owners get a one hour consultation from an architect (who puts in their time for free) in return for a donation to Shelter, normally £40. I’m beginning to think that we should somehow have a similar ‘Architect in the Fringe Venue’ where we go in for an hour or so and have a nose around and just see if there are simple, little, cost effective things we can do to make these spaces work better, make them feel more welcoming.

As a newcomer to theatre, and as an architect that cares about experiences, I think that all venues, from the fringe venues to the West End have to create places that people want to visit, that they want to enjoy – the trip to the theatre surely needs to be about more than just the play?

[Written by lead architect Dave Hughes of Hughes Jones Farrell]

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