Expression of performance in music, dance, and art has always been regarded as the peak of intellectual ability by humans. Over the years this expression has become more nuanced and diverged into a multitude of forms – from classical expressions to modern art to avant-garde. Throughout this journey in the evolution of performance, the spaces designed to host them have played a key role in creating the forms we see today. Both architecture and performance have always had a symbiotic relationship – one constantly influencing the other.
Theatres and auditorium spaces over the world have evolved to constantly accommodate the changing performances, this also works in reverse. Starting in ancient Greece, theatres originated first as temporary installations, and later were accommodated on the sloping sides of hills to enhance the view of the performing space, and also remove the need for creating a substructure.
These Greek theatres were carved out from mountain slopes and steps were cut out from the hillside. Usually, these steps covered over two-thirds of a circle and looked over the central flattened area where the performers put up shows. A structure behind the stage called a skene was also built to create backdrops and facilitate costume changes for actors during a show. The Greek theatre typology was further fine tuned to create better acoustics and the design was refined over time.
The Romans adopted the Greek style of theatre and made changes in design to create even better performance spaces. The skene and the stage (orchestra) were joined to create one structure, and the whole space was restricted to a semicircular shape. This brought the audience even closer to the main stage – enhancing the acoustics and quality of performances.
As much as theatre and performances peaked during this time, the following Dark Ages saw a huge decline, since, in Europe, the theatre was officially banned by the Church. Though, the medieval theatre form took its roots from the Church. Medieval theatre was done on elaborate but temporary wooden stages inside large halls and even barns. Such performances were based on the dramatization of passages from the Bible and even the lives of holy figures.
In Asia and the subcontinent, theatre and performance during this time manifested itself in multiple ways – with songs, dance, folktales, and even mime. Most oriental theatres and performance spaces were wooden stages, usually a rectangular shape with a decorated back wall and wooden pillars surrounding this platform – like the ‘noh’, a type of Japanese theatre.
In India, one of the oldest theatres is part of the Udayagiri caves in Orissa. It was built about 2000 years ago, with the scene carved out into the rock face. The seating area was made of wood, and the stage was a narrow platform raised slightly above the ground, carved directly into the rock. This theatre, showing similarities in design between India and the Greek typology, may have been the result of trade between the two countries.
More complex architectural forms and spaces slowly developed from the medieval theatre typology. There were a lot of new developments in theatre design as brought about by the Renaissance. Modern theatre, as we see today, developed primarily from typologies during this period. Emphasis was put on the life of humans, rather than on religious ideology. This completely changed the perspective and attitude of dramatic performances.
The theatres constructed during this time were built in the scale and proportion of humans. The stage area was increased, and a ‘proscenium’ arch was also introduced. The backdrop usually was a painted three-dimensional view – showing different spaces in front of which the actors performed. This design created a visual extension of the space, thus forever changing theatre dynamics.
After the Renaissance, semi-open-air theatres also started appearing around Europe, sometimes in even purpose-built settings. These were low three-storey buildings in which a small stage in the courtyard could be viewed from the balconies. These theatres opened up performances for the poorer citizens too, making theatre available to all.
At the beginning of the 20th century, theatre and performance space design took a new turn. A contemporary form, that integrated relationships between space, time, and the actors, completely changed the typology of theatres. Theatres still carried elements from earlier typologies including the original Greek and Roman basis but incorporated new methods of acoustic and spatial relationships. The idea of scenery slowly was taken over by the dimensions of time, space, and motion. Theatrical spaces now looked to express relationships between movement and space.
By the end of the modernist period, theatres had all the elements of Greek, Roman, oriental, and medieval typologies. Elements and characteristics were refined and enhanced, and with the advent of newer technologies, designs started adapting to greater needs.
Today, we live in a world where theatre and performance arts reflect our experiences, and matter and space are animated by the performers. The architecture integrates the two, to create spaces of wonder and intrigue that truly let both the audience and the performers experience the art.