the play's the thing
As a practising director, Bill Alexander, artistic director at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, is very aware of the possibilities of space. But he admits that 'all spaces can be boring'. As the client for the significant refurbishment by Pawson Williams Architects of the 1971 building (see page 34), this is a surprising attitude, yet it is the imaginative work that goes into creating theatrical space.
The venue's current play, Tennessee Williams' Baby Doll, the first since the refurbishment, uses the stage area to its fullest extent. The set extends onto the optional thrust stage going out above the pit at the front of the stage and over three of the lowest tiers of seats. At the back is a rough clapboard wall the height and width of a decent-sized house (or two) and a pile of white cotton tumbles down in the corner. In the foreground is a clapped-out old car.
Alexander started his drama career on a bus, touring the country with experimental community theatre. From there he moved on to do a trainee director's course at Bristol Old Vic and spent two years at London's Royal Court Theatre. His involvement with new writing at the Royal Court led to his special remit for new plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company when he moved there in 1979. Since 1992, he has been at the Birmingham Rep, directing plays as diverse as Othello and The Snowman and managing the theatre's programme.
While a student at Keele University, Alexander looked for 'found' spaces for performance: 'It is much more interesting,' he says, a process all about breaking down established relationships with the audience. The traditional repertoire of theatres can be enlivened by new spaces. He suggested that the only way to resurrect The Importance of Being Earnest might be to perform it in an abattoir. The stage on the Sun Art Bus was one such space. Founded as the world's smallest theatre, the actors performed in the area of the first two rows of seats on the top deck of the converted bus. The only traditional trappings were the velvet curtains.
'As a student, I never thought I would do anything as boring as working on a proscenium-arch stage,' confesses Alexander.
Despite those sentiments, his traineeship was in the oldest operating theatre auditorium in the country. He describes Bristol Old Vic as 'a beautiful little Georgian space - if you like that kind of thing.' The repertoire of the Vic was 'very ordinary', less an acknowledgement of the space - the sort of stage that many nineteenth-century plays had been written for - than an attempt to attract regular audiences. The Swan Theatre at Stratford also fails to enthuse Alexander. Built as a pre-Globe reconstruction of a Shakespearean theatre, the deep thrust stage is almost encircled by the auditorium and wooden balconies. The Swan has too much character for Alexander: 'I've never liked working in the Swan. It completely imposes its design on you.' The Swan and the Vic are both places Alexander prefers to see as buildings rather than performance spaces.
He remembers the rsc's Other Place as flexible, allowing the performance space to be diagonal, arena or traverse. Most theatres are less open to interpretation, a key liberating element of found space. For a director who creates touring shows, adapting stagings to different spaces is obligatory. Plays from the Rep tour similar venues around the country and the sets must be scalable so that they can shrink to fit smaller stages. Convenience dictates that productions should have to adapt as little as possible. Alexander recalls a small-scale rsc tour which played in corn exchanges and leisure centres and carried its own staging with it, transferring a pre-constructed space to different sites.
At the Rep Alexander has two very different spaces to work with. The Door is a converted rehearsal room, an intimate setting where the audience is very close to the small stage. For commercial reasons new plays tend to be tried out there. But for Alexander, there is also an artistic rationale: 'It is not too demanding a space'. He likes the contrast between The Door and the much larger main stage, a 'wonderful open space'. Little has been done to alter the dynamics of the stage. It needed rebuilding; the uneven floor could be unhelpful and the scaffolding holding it up didn't inspire actors with confidence. It is nominally a proscenium-arch stage. The opening onto the stage is delimited by a square arch but this is high enough to avoid creating the two-dimensional picture-postcard view of many stages.
While applying initially for funding for the refurbishment, the company was also in the process of requesting funding for a stabilisation budget. The £7 million grant allowed the theatre to straighten out its finances and will ensure that it does not suffer the financial dramas that many of the lottery's grand projects have suffered. For Alexander the struggle for the two successive grants has meant a workload of evaluation and assessment procedures since 1996. He is pleased to be offered a breather from the rollercoaster of grant requests though he says that other phases are 'always a possibility'. The strain was eased by the relationship with Pawson Williams which had 'the best taste' of all the original entrants and 'grew with the problems'. He is pleased with the result, which he says looks 'lovely'.
The new auditorium at the Rep has vastly improved sightlines and acoustics and from any seat in the audience you can see an actor at the back of the stage. Alexander admits that the layout of the auditorium does limit his ability to experiment with the relationship between the audience and the play, but his concern is now less with this matter than with the technical qualities of theatre environment: 'You must', he says, 'be able to see well and hear well.'