From proscenium to mask: how individual and collective audience experience is framed in different forms of London theatre
Enjoying a performance of Cinderella at the Hammersmith Lyric over the Christmas holiday I was struck by the social dimension of a visit to the theatre. At 550 seats, the Lyric is an intimate space, but Matcham’s fine 1895 interior creates a real sense of occasion. The architecture of the auditorium frames not just the actors, but also audience members. This works well for a pantomime, which involves a high level of participation. A curious feature of the Lyric is that the interior of the auditorium was dismantled and reassembled in a new commercial building in the 1970’s. Although this does not change the dynamic within the auditorium, as you enter the space it intensifies the sense of being transported to a world of the imagination.
Directors sometimes express frustration with performance spaces that impose a rigid relationship between the actor and the audience. At the Lyric there is a 120 seat black box studio to complement the Matcham auditorium. Studio performance spaces such as the Young Vic, Cottesloe at the National Theatre and Menier Chocolate Factory are more flexible: the configuration of stage and seating reinvented for each production, enabling the director to shape the total performance environment. The Olivier at the National Theatre, inspired by the layout of ancient Greek theatre and with the technical opportunities offered by the drum revolve stage, is a rare example of a large auditorium that offers greater directorial freedom and escape from the constraints of the proscenium arch. However, even here the dark drapes concealing the concrete surfaces flanking the stage and circle balcony front hint at a conflict. Theatre practitioners at the National have felt the need to blur the architectural division between stage and audience.
Companies like Punchdrunk and Shunt explode these divisions by creating immersive performance environments in complex found spaces, such as disused factories or warehouses. Punchdrunk take things even further in their free-flowing shows by issuing plain face masks to the audience as they arrive. This allows audience members and actors to identify each other in a situation where each individual will have a unique experience of the production, depending on where they are and when they are there. Punchdrunk’s masks and the Lyric’s proscenium frame very different theatrical experiences.