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Theatre conference plot is entertaining but muddled

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No new theatre should be built with more than 700 seats. New designs should veer away from cold, clean Modernism and aim to recreate the grimy, often difficult but intimate conditions exemplified by Britain's best Victorian playhouses. 'Found spaces' are important to keep alive and to reinvigorate the dramatic message by playing host to plays in new, relevant atmospheres. But ultimately the ideal theatre of the new age is one which is temporary, and flexible enough for the artist to inhabit, explore, and move on.

These were just some of the thoughts to come out of the 'Theatres: Building the Best' conference, held last week in the reworked Ambassadors Theatre, temporary home of the Royal Court Theatre, and chaired by Royal Court director Stephen Daldry.

The conference sought to go beyond mere lottery-bashing and look closely at the form of theatres: yes, what makes one good and another bad, but also what are the optimum conditions for directors, actors, and, crucially, for the audience? It was Sir Richard Eyre who made the most emphatic prescription that new theatres should be below the 700-seater mark - otherwise it forced 'spectacle' and intimacy was lost. 'Inherently theatre is about the relationship of those who are performing and those who are spectators,' he said. 'Unlike a lot of twentieth-century art forms, you cannot eradicate the human form. It's absolutely basic that you should be able to hear and see, and that you're in a relationship to the stage which is a generous one.'

It was also important for the audience to feel part of a collective, he said, adding that the shortcomings of the Lyttelton Theatre, for example - much debated through the day - were 'gross and manifest' but that he was paradoxically fond of the awkward design. Actress Fiona Shaw also touched on this point in describing how she had toured with her production of T S Eliot's The Wasteland to a number of different 'found spaces'. In New York, the play ended up in a disused porno theatre in 42nd Street, which had just been bought by Disney. In the East End of London, performing in an old music hall, Eliot's Lower Thames Street was just down the road and the audience brought memories of the old building as 'baggage' to the show. But the point was that, as Shaw said, 'discomfort unified the audience, particularly if it was shared by the performer'. At the Lyttelton, however, the experience was such that by the time the audience saw the cast, they were always, she said, 'mutual enemies'.

Designer Bill Dudley reiterated that the 'romance of the theatre flourishes in sometimes shabby premises', and gets turned off by that 'cold cathedral flavour of high art'. In theatres above pubs, real life is audible in the background, there is warmth, 'beautiful juxtaposition'.

Real examples by slide show and presentation revealed the importance of collaboration between architect and client. With Tricycle Theatre artistic director Nick Kent and architect Tim Foster, this had resulted in a new cinema next door in Kilburn to satisfy a little of the bums-on-seats requirement of continued government arts funding. Foster has improved the front of house, recognising the importance of the social spaces, and, said Kent, understanding the need for ease of maintenance, ease of running and for the space to be light, airy, welcoming and stylish.

With architect Tim Ronalds and local authority arts manager Rosemarie Lyons, the Landmark theatre at Ilfracombe, or the 'bra pavilions' as they were nicknamed in one newspaper, arose from a one-page brief which warned the project would attract a high degree of public interest. And how. The cone-shaped buildings were four times over their £1.3 million budget and three times the size.

Other points included focusing on 'the need to build audiences, not buildings', considered as being more than an architectonic problem; to Daldry's assertion that theatre needed to be 'occupied' and be radical; to the need for more risk in our culture; to a belief that the arts lottery was serving theatres well in renovations to thousands of small projects, pushed into the shade by the media's emphasis on the Royal Opera House and lottery millions.

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