Since the ancient civilisations, humans have been entertaining themselves with theatrical performances. It started with simple storytelling around campfires to performances staged in particular areas and then buildings designed for the specific purpose. Today, UK theatres feature state of the art equipment but many still occupy legacy buildings.
The Greeks and Romans were hugely fond of gathering in massive groups to enjoy some drama. The Greeks preferred a more intellectual performance as well as sporting displays, while the Romans tended towards speed, killing and mayhem. For both empires, theatres were massive arenas built from huge rocks in tiers and its testament to their incredible design that many of them still stand today. For centuries, the basic principle of design has been to have semi-circular theatre seating in tiers around a stage.
During Medieval times, stonemasons were gainfully employed on building cathedrals and churches and homes for the rich. Medieval plays were performed by bands of strolling players who set up in barns and village gathering places. Galleried buildings, inns and barns gave rise to the wooden theatres of Elizabethan times, such as that of The Globe in London, which were multi-sided, open air, and in which the audience mainly stood.
Before England became a republic, music and drama was still favourable among the rich and the not so rich and this period saw the first “celebrity” designers like the architect Inigo Jones. During Cromwell’s time however, theatrical performances were outlawed, and many theatres were destroyed. With the restoration of the monarchy, passion for theatre revived and King Charles II himself granted patents to two theatre companies which eventually set up permanent homes at Covent Garden and Drury Lane. Further theatres received Royal patronage and this period saw a change in design: roofs were added, and with the additional technical and elaborate scenery requirements for performances increasing, bigger backstage areas became the norm.
Theatre has always meant some form of performance as entertainment, but in the 18th Century, thanks to the licensing act, drama was separated from all other forms and could only be performed in “patent theatres” in London and various towns. This led to an increased number of unlicensed theatres at the same time that the numbers of companies of players who moved from town to town grew. Playhouses were built to accommodate the shows. They were of simple design, with modest facades and usually just one big room that contained the staged and bench seating.
The 18th century saw the introduction of safety features to the design of theatres. Most theatres were heavily timbered and at risk of fire. In 1794, the Drury Lane Theatre introduced the iron safety curtain, and many theatres began to build water tanks on the roof. Also toward the end of the century, more stone theatres were constructed, many with fancy, porticoed facades.
The early 19th century saw poor standards and economic decline and theatre attendance severely declined until the towns began to see the impact of migration during the Industrial Revolution. The 1843 Licensing Act removed the patent monopoly and many construction licences for theatres were issued. Alcohol was prohibited in licensed theatres and this stimulated the growth of other entertainment venues adapting and growing to provide theatre alongside food and drink. They were simple additions to inns and pubs with wooden seating on flat floors around a simple platform stage. This led to purpose-built theatres known as Music Halls.
Other theatres were becoming more elaborate and permanent in design. Specialist architects demolished old timber-based theatres with stone buildings with different levels, horseshoe balconies, comfortable stall-style seating, and fancy stage areas. It was also at this time that segregation in ticket pricing began with cheaper seats in the pit and expensive seats in small boxes.
The heyday of British theatre construction was between 1880 and 1914. It is thought some 1,000+ theatres existed in the UK during this time. They featured gas lighting and later, electricity was introduced. Fire exits and escape routes were incorporated into designs that now needed to include a number of health and safety features and complied with building regulations. Concrete began to feature heavily as the construction material and innovations such as cantilevered balconies, hydraulic stages, and hippodromes (capable of being flooded for incredible water-based performances) all came about. Interiors became rich and opulent with towering columns, velvet seating and drapes, stucco, frescoes, painted ceilings, and chandeliers.
With the invention of the bioscope and then cinematic films, theatres were upgraded or newly built to include projection rooms and a place for an organ (to accompany silent movies). By the First World War, practically every town had a cine-theatre. The post war years and the depression saw few new theatres until the Art Deco period ushered in a regained love for theatre and a growing popularity of movies. This lead to an exciting period of theatre design encompassing all the glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age. Many UK towns today boast an Art Deco building that still is or was a theatre/cinema.
Post-World War II, theatre building became subsumed into urban regeneration projects and many 20th century theatres are part of multi-purpose civic complexes. Some of the older theatres have been built around to form the centre of such a complex with an art deco theatre sitting next to a modern auditorium in the same building. The newer parts are more functional, and the older theatres are upgraded to keep pace.
As technology advances and audience tastes change, theatres will change. New construction materials will make theatre design evolve and interiors will be more comfortable and geared to audience comfort.