On Building a Theater


When the event of theater begins, does the place of the event become a theater?

Present Company Theatorium, 198 Stanton Street

We believe, reflexively and grandly, that all the world is a stage and the adventurous directors among us see performance sites everywhere. Peter Brook, traveling the world, carried only a carpet, unrolling it to create a stage. But did the desert become a theater? There is a critical difference between a stage and a theater, of course. There are stages in restaurants, every bar has a stage, but they remain, stubbornly, bars. We speak of someone always being “on”, but never of someone constantly “in”. Theaters, it seems, are like churches or schools. You can celebrate a sacrament or learn from a master anywhere, but when you’re getting married on a beach at Waikiki or in a hot air balloon over Kansas, no one asks directions to the church.

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Building an actual theater, a building or room expressly designed or modified for theater to happen within, is an illuminating and humbling experience. In the winter of 1994, we converted a 2,000 sq/ft loft on the fourth floor of what used to be a theatrical curtain factory in Hell’s Kitchen into a rehearsal/performance/office space. In the summer of 1998, we turned a 7,500 sq/ft auto garage on the Lower East Side into the Theatorium. The steps of conversion were the same.

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First, you survey the site. With no instruments and ideally alone, you roam the space. At first you move seemingly at random, stopping to stare at a detail in the ceiling or on the wall, moving on. This must be what it feels like to divine for water with a wooden stick. What you are looking for is not clear, but you are clearly looking. Examining, testing the room for its pressure points, its natural orientation. Many images flood through you at this time and project themselves onto the empty space. These are all invariably grainy reproductions of previous theaters you have worked in or know and they should all be examined carefully and then dismissed. Every space has its own unique and underlying structure, balance and harmony. It is your job to recognize and manifest them.

Q: Why is this man smiling?
A: The stage has just been swept.

The second stage is cleaning. Unlike surveying, this is best done with as many people as possible and in marathon sessions. The people who clean the space should be the people who will work in it. The sessions should start early, break for communal meals eaten in the space, and then continue until you are exhausted or alone. Take note of those who stay the longest. These are the people who will work the hardest in the theater that you are building. Cleaning is not only purifying the space, it is the establishment of your relationship to the space and whatever ghosts may inhabit it. You are saying, “To the best of my powers I will keep the dirt, grime and cobwebs of the world out of this space. I will guard against clutter and neglect. There will be nothing unintentional or random here.” This is an agreement with the space which you must be constantly aware of and which you will constantly break. It is a vow to be continually renewed.

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The third step is the placement of the stage. This is enjoyable and momentous, but not truly significant. Once the stage area of the space is designated, you will find yourself and others naturally orienting around it. The building of a stage is a group effort requiring coordination, strength, precision and constant adjustment. Once a physical stage is built or an area of the floor is painted and demarcated as a stage it begins to feel that you have built a theater. In truth you have only built a stage. The significant step, the step that alters the room utterly and creates a theater where before there was a room, is the placement of the audience area. It is only when the risers or a row of chairs or cushions have been placed in opposition to the stage that a theater begins to exist.

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One night after we had spent the day building the stage and the risers in the Theatorium, I was alone, sweeping up as I had a dozen times before. Sweeping has always been an enjoyable, meditative task for me, so I was dreaming away, mechanically brushing the broom against the concrete floor when I felt a mild electric current pass through my arms and chest. I looked up from the floor, startled, to discover I had stepped between the stage and the risers. With this realization the current grew strong and steady, not oscillating, not seeming to come from any one direction, but somehow contained or pressurized between the stage and the house. I was no longer sweeping up an auto garage. I was sweeping up a theater. I looked to the left to the risers we had built hours before. They were ancient, watching, awake. I looked to the right at the stage we had finished that morning. It was ageless, open and waiting. And I felt, viscerally, actually, on my skin, how the theater exists not in either place, stage or audience, but only and completely in the place where they meet, the place where I stood holding a broom. The feeling lasted all of twenty seconds and as I turned back and forth from the risers to the stage, the lights seemed slightly brighter and my vision seemed slightly sharper and I became exquisitely aware of my own breath and my body’s position in the room. The current grew less and gradually faded down to the slightest buzz, slight enough so that I could no longer tell if I were creating it or if it were still actually there, like listening to the twin tines of a tuning fork when you can no longer see them vibrate. Ever since that night I have felt that slight buzz when I have stepped between the audience and the stage of that theater, which is one of the reasons that theater will always be a special, sacred space for me.

Churches and schools are where you find them.

After the stage and the risers are placed, you begin the process of concealing the space with curtains and black paint. This is an interesting phase because you are hiding things in order to reveal others. Dressing rooms and lobbies and supply closets and offices are constructed. If you have any money, this is when you purchase and install the lights and the grids and the sound system. For me this always felt strange and extraneous, like strapping klieg lights and an outboard motor to a wooden canoe you have carved from a tree trunk. Others enjoy this stage greatly, it is simply a matter of taste.

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The final stage in building a theater occurs on the opening night of your first production. It does not matter what the show is or how, in your estimation, it goes off. The essential thing is that at least one stranger comes in off the street, glances around, sits and grows quiet as the performance begins. When the performance is over and they rise and leave, you have built a theater. Again, it does not matter what, if anything, they say to you about the performance or even if they stayed awake through most of it. Their presence is the essential thing. When they have left and the actors appear from out of the back and the designers begin to adjust and the director begins to talk, leave the theater if you can and stand outside in the world, breathing in the night air.

Then turn and walk into your theater. Find a broom and start sweeping.

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