Black Box- White Box- Light Box?

“In the disposition of the Greek theatre, the audience was closely related to the chorus. It almost entirely surrounded them, and the auditorium was an extension of the orchestra circle…”

“…Although the chorus is still physically present the orchestra is no longer the focus of the action. That role has been transferred to the skene. The orchestra is now a void, looking forward to the time, not far distant, when the chorus has only a vestigial presence; when the orchestra circle, impinged upon on one side by the enlarged stage area and the other by seats of honour for the dignitaries in the audience, has been reduced to half its original extent; and what was once the centre of the action has become a gulf, with the spectators on one side and the performers on the other.”

The two quotations above by Peter D. Arnott in his study of Greek theatre situate two micro-historical moments in the theatre tradition, set apart 50 years, beginning with Aeschylus and terminating with Euripides. He shows how the chorus, a remainder from pre-dramatic traditions, was incorporated into the theatre and initially, as a role they connected the audience and the performers, both vicariously and through dialogue, performing their primary function as narrators of the play which was with time augmented with a role within the dramatic action. This dual role was seen in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon but as early as the Libation Bearers, the chorus became integrated into the action and lost its omniscience sometimes proving to be less informed than the audience or even misdirecting them. Thus, though sometimes the chorus might share some information with the audience it is not their role, at least not in ancient drama. Moreover, Arnott is entirely completely sure if the sung words of the chorus were ever meant to be understood or if they were purely interludes in a continuous series of plays in the festival. This was further exacerbated in Sophocles and Euripides, where the chorus was completely transformed from a presenting device to a representing device. Euripides even attempted to do away with them in his intention of making Greek tragedy more realistic which, contradictorily meant distancing it from the audience by ensuring their undiluted immersion in the spectacle. Quite surprisingly In Bacchae, he reintroduced the chorus, even multiplying it to represent two groups.

My argument, in this lecture, departs from the above observation and claims that the spatial articulation between the audience and the performance is an oscillating dilemma that has challenged theatre through the ages and it is through this challenge that theatre has advanced as a spatial practice. However, in respect to modern society the complete separation between the role of the audience and the performance can properly be situated within the theatre reformations of the 18th century in France and its close alignment with the political formation of the ‘state’. Alternatively if one desires to discuss its history through a ‘technological’ point of view one could quite rightly situate it at the moment when inexpensive interior lighting becomes a feasible option in commercial spaces.

Why is this argument especially important to understand? With the focus of the theatre as a space of pure fantasy and interiority, theatrical productions in effect have become, metaphorically speaking, more two-dimensional, the audience has been rendered more static and passive, and theatre itself, increasingly has turned into a more private rather than communal act. While, I would agree in principle with Jacques Ranciere’s argument in ‘The Emancipated Spectator’ that the theatre is always a personal affair; on the other hand, I would question the implications of constructing it as solely, a private affair which, political and social consequences especially because the theatre is a space as much as it is a practice, and informs a variety of public institutions, including and possibly not limited to, the judiciary and the assembly. Katherine Fischer Taylor, in her studies on the Palais de Justice in Paris, shows us how explicitly it was the theatre that informed the spaces and the practice for both of the public institutions after the revolution in the end of the 18th century.

What do I mean by theatre as a ‘performative mode of practice’?

I borrow the phrase from Alan Read and interpret his articulation as follows: a theatrical practice or a form is inextricably linked to ithe spatial arrangement of objects and persons and moreover, it represents and organises relations between them. In its turn, this form of practice is inevitably hinged on the existence of an audience. However, the relationship or distinction between the audience and the performer has constantly been under scrutiny and has changed across time and with intent. Furthermore, the audience as a pure construction is a far more recent figure in the theatre, whereas earlier it was more common to have an audience that was a hybrid between a performer and an audience.  I will attempt to provide some examples of what this means:

In the courtroom, the theatrical mode of practice begins when the audience rises on the entry of the judiciary. This is not solely a mark of respect but in fact, is a proclamation of the existence of the spectator, an assertion of the fact that justice is done on their behalf, and the act reinforces the relationship between the audience and the judiciary. Though it is obvious that the judge is both the audience and the spectator, what is less obvious is that through their involvement the audience is also implicated within the judicial process as performers.

In the national assembly, yet another performative mode of practice, the positioning of participants in the assembly, who are there both as representatives of the people and in turn are themselves people of the state, are similarly both the performers and the audience. Their spatial arrangement clearly demarcates the ideological differences between them and in effect, the space allows the different points of view to be visualised.

More relevantly in the theatre, the role of the audience was folded in, within the play, intricately and in numerous ways. Some examples are: Shakespeare’s repeated reference to the relationship between the performer and the audience integrated in the script, the use of the chorus in ancient Greek theatre as a fulcrum to display a part of the societal voice, and finally, the seamless integration of the audience as a continuation of the stage as seen in Aeschylus’ Eumenides as a strategy to make the audience in a way a complicit partner to the act.

What I am going to try to show you is how important the role of architecture and the design of objects in this space was in constructing this theatrical form of practice, and to do so I will do so through an investigation of the Globe theatre in London, using it as a fulcrum to connect us to the Renaissance and the 21st century, and the assembly and the judiciary.

The reason that I am choosing to focus on the Globe theatre is because it is well-known, well visited it and experienced, and more imposrtantly, it is one of the early examples of a theatre space that was not constructed by a monarch or by the state or an elite association but, it is part of private enterprise, planned by the actors and directors of the play. In effect, it is Shakespeare’s work place. The reason that is important is because: it was not created for a particular class of people but was commercial and for the masses, which is quite unlike the ‘Teatro Olimpico’ by Palladio and, through the history of theatre design, we will find that the theatres designed by directors are often reactions or critiques of the manner in which the audience is submersed as a passive mass in the space.

I am going to discuss very selected elements of the Globe which are: the stage, the role of light, movement and the form of the theatre.


The Stage

 It is common knowledge that Shakespeare’s stage was not a plan but rather a sectional device, and likely precedents for it are the moving pageant stages that flitted through the marketplace before the advent of fixed commercial theatrical spaces. The heavens are painted on the overhang of the tiring house that frames the upper volumetric limit of the space of the play which is equipped with a trap door to allow descent from heaven. This trap door is matched with one that is symmetrically placed atop the surface of the stage, which leads one to bowels of the earths or to hell. The simplicity of the three realms mark a clear limit to the space of acting– a sleight of hand, in a sense, that focuses the attention of the audience.

In fact, the stage radiates into the tiring house which may be contemporarily defined as a back stage. Above in the heavens, cannon balls rolled along the floors displaying the experienced but invisible wrath of Zeus. From the bowels rose Pluto and across the façade of the tiring house windows project into the surface of the stage. Juliet did not stand at a balcony. The tiring house was also often used to generate a greater income, and the upper level was used as premier balcony for the lordlier of the spectators who while facing the backs of the actors however, were seen by the rest of the rabble. Visually this inevitably blurred the clear spatial distinction between players and audience, and this blurring was only amplified by the close proximity of the side wings of the audience rooms, again meant for the ones who could afford it, and the stage. In the Royal Theatre (Old Stage) in Copenhagen, the Queen has a room quite like what I am referring to and the room not only gives her a clear view of the stage but she is visible by all present in the auditorium.

This practice was not restricted to plays but was common in French law courts as shown by Fischer Taylor who I mentioned earlier, where the more celebrated of the public sat behind the judiciary, until this practice was finally abolished in the 19th century. The courts of the ancien régime had a balcony commandeering the corner of the courtroom realigning the focus of the court from the judiciary to the monarch in case of his appearance. It is important here to mention that the stage or well of the French court was left empty. The performers and the audience were situated around the ring of this well, around which every position clearly marked the role of the participant as either judge, prosecutor, defendant, witness or jury. The extended public was delegated to a ring that was beyond this intimate circle, not very different from what was depicted on the shield of Achilles.

Rather interesting this was reintroduced with a twist, in my reading, in the early 21st century by Rem Koolhaas in the OMA constructed Casa da Musica in Porto in Portugal where the back of the musicians is peppered with additional seating. This in effect transforms the concert hall into two types of spaces. The uni-directional long seating and the bi-directional intimate seating. The former celebrates the richness of the auditorium wedged between fluted glass, Portugese tiled balconies and the mercantile city while the latter, allows for the green plaza beyond the auditorium as a backdrop to a small and intimate musical performance.

The stage in the Globe theatre was not only sectional, but apparently following Roman tradition, as suggested by Dame Frances Yates in the Theatre of the World, its surface enveloped a number of different places that were mentioned in the play. As a visual aid and purely invented for this lecture: for example, to the left was Venice, while to the right would be Cyprus. Venice itself would be further localised – the house Barbantio, the market place and so on. Thus, a change of spatial positioning denoted a change in location and the scene. The surface not unlike the assembly that allowed the differences to be spatially organised in the mind’s eye of the spectator.

In summary, the stage was not only uncontained within the fixed dimensions of its framed volume but it was a device whereby the position on the stage denoted roles and places, both metaphorically and imaginatively.



 Richard Leacroft in his book The Development of the English Playhouse makes an interesting observation : the incorporation of a roof over the theatre, which obviously necessitated the inclusion of interior lighting, inadvertently inverted the relationship between the rich and the poor. The poor were no longer in the pits or the lower galleries but rather were positioned further away from the stage. This is quite reminiscent of the French apartment block where the maids were assigned the terraced lofts which was only to become the most coveted spaces after the introduction of the elevator. Interior lighting did not only change the social ordering of the theatre but as observed by the guide at the Globe, natural lighting unified the performer and the audience. Hencce, would it be too preposterous to suggest that roofing the auditorium helped in exaggerating the difference between the audience and the performer? It amplified the spectacle rather than the theatre as a space, and with this singular focus it forced very different rituals that became immersive and cinematic, forcing the audience into an interiority within themselves.

“People sat or stood in this relation for a long time, as long as the sunlight lasted. The theatrical space thus functioned as a detection mechanism, its focus and duration meant to get beneath the surface of momentary impressions. And such a disciplinary space of eye, voice, and body had one great virtue: Through concentration of attention on a speaker and identification of others in the audience who might call out challenges or comments, the ancient political theater sought to hold citizens responsible for their words”

The quote above by Richard Sennett clearly expresses the importance of light. As suggested by Sennett light equalised the audience and the speaker, made them recognisable to each other and put their words into a focus. It also indirectly acted as a testing mechanism – to test the mettle, discipline and the rigour of the participants. Moreover, I would argue that it ensured that the participants were always aware of their context – literally and historically. More recent understanding of the importance of this can be seen in two very different spaces: the news room and the casino. The former is usually seen in its city ensuring that the audience is aware of the context of the discussion however the latter, by avoiding any reference to the exterior create a sense of the self that is timeless in the sense of other commitments.

In contemporary law courts, for example in the International Criminal Court, clerestory windows, while ensuring that the proceedings are not at all disrespected by improper scenes in the background, allow the audience to be very aware of a space beyond the court room theatre. This forces the audience to be aware of the reality of their place and the gravity of the situation that they are witnessing.

The theatre exists within a city, it is not detached from the context where the production was birthed. The context is an indelible mark – despite multiple interpretations – even if it is possible to move the work, the opinion and the person from the context, it would be impossible to move the context from the work. In a very literal manner, I will refer to a scholar, Peter Meineck, who writes about the inextricability of the play Eumenides and the theatre of Dionysus within the city of Athens where the play was performed and was awarded first place in the festival. He states that the spectator through his peripheral vision was able to see the city which, while allowing the play to retain its mythological drama also ensured that there was a political metanarrative that made the play even more persuasive, personal and contemporary. There are numerous suggestions that Aeschylus’ play used the natural city as much as a scene as the theatre itself.

“Rush Rehm has widely described the field of vision available to the spectator seated in the theatron who could look out at the temple and sanctuary of Dionysos, the city walls and Southern gates, several important cult sites and sanctuaries, the old city of Athens to the South, the farms and roads of the Attic hills, all the way to the sea”

While the theatre is often colloquially referred to as the black box, there are numerous examples from the 20th century that use natural light as part of the theatrical space. For example, the glazed dome of the unbuilt Total Theatre by Walter Gropius or even more so in the working Teatro Oficino by Lina Bo Bardi in Sao Paulo.

The Oficino is a remarkable piece of architecture inspite of its miniscule size. The complete dilution of the extent of the stage, its sectional experience and the differences in the qualities of the space along the length of the theatre have allowed various unique reinterpretations of famous theatrical productions. The theatre is equipped with an openable skylight that exposes part of the theatre to the real heavens and the weather. Furthermore, towards the inner courtyard, the stage is exteriorised through a glazed wall that bleeds into the roof.

Glazing and skylight technology has greatly advanced and become more affordable and as we will see later in the Wyly theatre by OMA, that it has permitted the release of the black box from its central position within the plan of a building towards its periphery, thereby stimulating novel challenges to the practice in its wake.



While it cannot be categorically said that the audience in traditional theatres moved around in the auditorium, there is definitely scholarly work that proves that they were rather uninhibited in their appreciation or discontent of the performance and it was integrated into the very structure of the performance. In Greek plays, for example, Aristophanes’ chorus in his comedies often directly refer, goad and even threaten the audience with consequences if the play wasn’t to their liking.

This participation in the middle ages and early Renaissance was attributed to the act of standing in the theatre and it could be surmised that the yard in effect replaced the ancient chorus in the relationship between the seated spectators and the performers. In the Globe, the audience in the yard were indisputably rather raucous as is evidenced in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.

“These are the youths that thunder at a playhouse,
and fight for bitten apples; that no audience, but
the Tribulation of Tower-hill, or the Limbs of
Limehouse, their dear brothers, are able to endure.”
(Henry VIII, 5.4.65-8)

Fischer Taylor in her research displays the attention given to the decision of whether the audience must be seated or left standing in the new post-revolution law courts in France. It was customary that the audience were standing at the back of the courts. Looking at theatres there was an observation put forth that the audience that was seated was often more reserved and even calmer than the audience who were standing. Thus, the chambers for the audience in law courts, the assembly and even the new theatres were furnished with seats, inevitably forcing the focus from the audience to the performance.

It could be argued that the passivity of the audience became far more difficult a habit to break and the 20th century theatre would attempt to do so by ‘de-focusing’ the audience. The Total Theatre, was planned with multiple screens in various directions and a rotating stage to disengage the audience from the immersive experience of a single focus. While there were numerous small examples of theatre advancements it was another century before we would see an architectural example that would turn theatre design on its head, quite literally as expressed in the presentation by OMA.

The Syracuse theatre refurbishment (2012), The Prada Transformer by OMA, (2009) and The Wyly theatre in Dallas designed by OMA and REX (2009) in the early 21st century are all important experiments of the way that the relationship between the audience and the stage/performance is challenged, and participation invoked. The Transformer and Wyly theatre show similar studies. The Prada Transformer as a pavilion introduces us to a series of diagrams of stage forms that are un-hybridised, that is, though they exist in the same building they are isolated from one another. Due to this one is able to read the implications of different stage forms on audience grouping. This has been taken further: the Wyly theatre is exemplar as it breaks away from many of the conditions that chained theatres. The auditorium comes forth to the exterior, reconnecting with the ground plane while carrying the back of house vertically above. The circulation, seating, stage is all constantly mutating or theoretically capable of doing so. The theatre challenged theatrical production to match its own flexibility.

This was repeated,  in the interior in the Bridge theatre in London – a technologically amplified Globe – where the yard is simultaneously all stage and all audience. The performance forces the audience to move in time with the stage. The stage constantly rises and falls back into the ground creating permutations that are limited only by human imagination. The play that I saw began with a stage to the left centre, which then became a podium that bifurcated the yard and further transformed into an S shaped domestic space and so and so forth for all of the two hours of Julius Caesar. The audience were part of the scene, the furniture changes and were the extras in the production.

The video on the website of OMA shows us the transformations in the Syracuse theatre. The elements in the theatre are rather clear and few in mumber – seating, stage, scene and bridge. Formally the bridge completes the semi-circularity of the seating in plan but sectionally on walking along the bridge one can descend on to the scene/steps hybrid, under which is the back stage, and walk up onto the stage to only rise via the seating and walk along them to arrive back at the bridge. On the hand, the scene can be rotated and opened, again creating a variety of moments and relationships between different elements in the theatre, even while completely respecting the sanctity and multiplicity of the Greek oeuvre and spatial heritage.



To end I would like to talk about the form of the theatre. The Globe is closely associated with Vitruvius’ writings, which was translated into English and were available to the public, and it is no wonder that the earlier commercial theatres that relied heavily on the words of the play rather than expensive scenery followed the Roman tradition put forth by him. Quoting Vitruvius from Dame Frances Yates, the circle or polygonal (due to construction limitations) is most evident:

“The voice he says like a flowing breath of air which moves in successive undulations, as when a stone is thrown into standing water. In the same way, the sound of a voice moves. But while in water the circles move horizontally only, undulations of sound from the voice both move horizontally and rise vertically. The theatre must be arranged in such a way that nothing disturbs or hinders the horizontal and vertical undulations of sound moving in circles from the voices on the stage.”

The circle, as also suggested by Arnott was perceived as the perfect form to create the radiating relationship between the stage, via the orchestra up to the audience and Gropius through all his permutations did prefer the circle. In fact, the Fortune theatre, a contemporary of the Globe, was square in order to maximise seating capacity and technically allow for the roofing, but it suffered from terrible sightlines at the corners.

Though there is little to disagree and indisputably the circle is far more in tandem with the ideas of audience relating to each other, and it would not be a challenge to prove that the rectangular form of the modern theatre predicates one to look ahead rather than peripherally, however, it would not harm us to be aware of the reasoning behind the circular form and its connection with the rectangular form that is preferred today. It has been suggested by Leacroft that the circle was possibly the ‘typical’ plan of the 16th/17th century leisure industry. If the playhouse did not perform well it could be used to house other more successful event spaces for example cockpits. What I mean by ‘typical’ plan is a commercial idea that the plan allows for more than a single function, occupant and tenant. This reduces the risk of the owner or developer. Today, rather than circular the typical inclines towards right angles. This is where we could maybe look back to Renaissance ideas in cathedrals with the shell systems where the interior and the exterior were not naturally an offset of each other thus, in a way allowing economics, sightlines and conceptual ideas to meld together in the spaces in-between.

In conclusion, I hope that this lecture, if nothing else gives you a vocabulary and framework to begin to study and look at theatres. Thank you very much.

One thought on “Black Box- White Box- Light Box?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s