Designing Mito, Part 3
Introduction to the ACM Theatre -- by Arata Isozaki
Quarterly Mito Geijutsu-kan No. 3, Spring 1989

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History and Concept of the Theater


This essay will introduce the theater within the ATM complex. In some respects, the fundamental concept behind the theater is slightly similar - or should I say, in the same line of thought - as the plan for the Tokyo Globe Theatre, the design for which I served as a consultant a few years back. Tracing the origins of the concept, one is led back to the Shakespearean Globe Theatre in England. I designed the ACM Theatre with the format of that theater in mind. From the 16th century to the beginning of the 17th century, when Shakespeare was active, he mainly used two theaters: the Swan Theatre and the Globe Theatre. Given the various controversies about the reconstruction of those theaters, it is impossible to reproduce them perfectly, so the Tokyo Globe Theater aimed at an "imaginary" reproduction, sort of as a trial or warmup.

When I was working on that project, I was reminded of the fact the form of the Noh stage in Japan gradually took shape in the 16th century, reaching the basic form still maintained today at the beginning of the 17th century. The era in which that happened overlaps Shakespeare's career exactly, meaning that Noh and Shakespeare share the same period. Two totally unrelated styles of drama, emerging separately in Japan and England at the same time, still influence dramatic styles in the modern age.

A comparison of the two forms of drama will reveal several similarities. The first is the fact that the plays were basically meant to be performed outdoors back then. Despite their being outside, however, the audience was partially "indoors," that is, under a canopy or eaves, viewing the stage set in a courtyard. The fact that the stage was also covered by a roof was partially meant as protection from rain, but probably had some other significance as well. Both Shakespearean and Noh theaters have this point in common.

Another similarity between the two styles of drama is the way the stage juts out into the audience, who watches either from a gallery or a flat, earthen-floored area (the latter was "standing room only" in England, while people sat on reed mats in Japan). This style of stage is commonly referred to as a "thrust stage" today, with the audience surrounding the stage as they watch the dramatic performance.

There is a very definite reason behind this type of stage: since it is clear that the best results are achieved by having the audience come in as close a physical contact as possible with the actors who are performing, one may conclude that the pursuit of that logic eventually led to the development of the thrust stage as the best solution.

One can find thrust stages in theaters everywhere nowadays. In Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford upon Avon, which serves as the headquarters of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the new Swan Theatre was built behind the large theater a few years ago in an attempt to recreate the original form of the former theater that had burnt to the ground. Swan Theatre faithfully duplicates the style of the thrust stage extant in Shakespeare's time, with the three-floor gallery surrounding the stage being practically the same as the original. The theater is small, seating only 300 people, producing an extremely intimate relationship between the stage and the audience. The impression I got from a watching a play there was infinitely stronger than any Shakespeare play I have seen on a larger stage.

Some people may wonder why I decided to turn the clock back when designing the ACM Theatre. To answer that question, it is important to look at how performance styles developed in Europe [after Shakespeare's time]. In the Baroque era that followed Shakespeare, the stage began to develop as a fabricated space, stuffed into a picture frame using the method of perspective drawing. Namely, the stage began to be organized as if it were a picture on the other side of the frame - moreover, it required more depth than a picture would. The audience, then, was meant to view the stage from outside the picture frame, facing the stage in much the same way that one would look at a picture. The type of theatrical space that grew from such an audience-stage relationship kept on evolving along the same lines for almost 350 years, through the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. As a result of that development, I believe that the relationship between the audience and the stage came to be severed.

However, starting in the mid-1960s, a sort of revolution or movement in performance [styles] was initiated in Japan, carried out by Mr. Tadashi Suzuki and other dramatic artists. Given that they did not perform under the condition of proper "frame-like" stages, what they aimed to achieve instead was to bring the audience and stage into extremely close contact with each other - allowing the audience almost to feel the actors' bodies, so to speak. Their style is still one of the newest contemporary dramatic movements. By giving deep consideration to this movement, I believe that it can be interpreted as an attempt to reestablish the relationship with the audience - in the form of dramatic space - that had existed in the era that produced both the Noh stage and the style of theater represented by Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.

But my idea in designing the ACM Theatre was not to return to the age of Shakespeare, but rather to use the format of that era as a springboard or foundation upon which a new type of theater could be produced - one that would have greater contemporary significance. I believed that it would be best for me as a designer of the project if I could get Mr. Suzuki to accept such an idea. His invitation as the general art director of the theater allows us to look forward to his being the most appropriate person for this type of stage.

Specifically speaking, [the layout of the ACM Theatre] is actually closer to being an arena stage than it is a thrust stage. It goes one step further than the Tokyo Globe Theatre - I would like to make it an even more perfect and complete theater.



Placing the Stage in the Middle of a Circle


Let me describe the shape of the ACM Theatre. As a building, it follows a three-level construction. The plan of the interior is completely circular, with the three-story section enveloping the stage practically to the point where the audience is seated almost directly above it. I thus tried to give the stage a sort of centripetal power, [pulling the audience toward it.] Almost half of the first floor is taken up by the stage. Interestingly, I have placed the director's control booth in the place where the royal box usually is - on the first floor, facing the front. I ended up putting it there after long discussions with Mr. Suzuki where the control booth should be. [With the control booth in the position of the royal box,] the director who is barking orders is given the same broad scope of the performance as the sovereign once had, as he or she sits in the same place. That leads to different implications [for the style of performance]: in most theaters, the director is located right in front of the stage as he or she works, but at ACM Theatre, directions can be given even during a performance. The significance of this theater, I feel, may very well be symbolized by this positioning.

As a matter of fact, I was not completely responsible for the design of the ACM Theatre, at least down to the gritty details. However, since I had a fairly good grasp of all the shortcomings of the Tokyo Globe Theatre, a previous project of mine, I was able to propose a specific plan that would make up for the defects of that theater as much as possible, rendering the project at Mito more complete. One example is the relationship of the audience's line of sight and the stage - the angle of view from the second and third floors at the Tokyo Globe Theatre is probably a bit too high. I fixed that problem by lowering the height [of the floors] as much as I could - to the ultimate extent that this theater format allowed, in fact - so as to bring the audience closer [to the stage].

I will move next to an explanation of how the stage is to be used under these circumstances. As mentioned before, it occupies the rear half of the circular first floor. However, with the use of trap doors, the stage can be expanded or shrunk as necessary. At maximum, it can be made to fill up the entire first floor, while when reduced in size, it can replicate the location of a Noh stage near the middle of the floor, a little to the right of the exact center. The rest of the stage can be lowered or set at an angle with the addition of bridge-shaped passageways, enabling the audience to surround the stage to an even greater degree.

I have thus given the stage a compound nature: basically, the front half serves as the stage, with the rear of the round stage capable of being closed off entirely, resulting in a completely round space. If the space is opened up, it can be used as stage wings (coulisses), serving as an entrance and exit [for the actors]. I am now in the midst of devising various devices that will make the stage easy to use in all sorts of dramatic situations.

The seats on the first floor are set up in parquet (pit) fashion [i.e., no balcony above them]. Even so, half the seats are situated on a slope to give the audience the best possible sight line. That consideration is just one of the steps implemented to make up for the defects experienced at the Tokyo Globe Theatre.

The question of what actually will be performed at the theater will have to wait for it to open. The only things that emerges during the construction phase as far as the stage space is concerned are the framework and contour - the further addition of such things as lighting and stage props may turn it into a different type of place later on. It is really quite interesting to see how a performance transcends the conditions imposed by the underlying architectural structure.

At any rate, since my original idea was not to give the theater a frame-like stage, I deliberately avoided installing large-scale stage devices like those found in traditional European opera. Instead, I believe it is the most desirable to put on performances [in ACM Theatre] using the minimum number of large props, augmented by smaller items. I made that judgment because I thought that that would be an appropriate condition for handling a theater of this scale.

I have also included a rehearsal room - shared with the orchestra - which is slightly smaller than the stage itself. The reason I made it this way was that I do not foresee such a tight schedule that would call for the performance of one play to coincide with the rehearsal for the next one; instead, I assume that there will be enough of an interval between plays, letting one play go through the process of rehearsal, training, performance, and closing down, after which the next play will do the same. I guess that if more space is needed, extra rooms can be assigned for rehearsal purposes somewhere else within the ATM complex.

As for the dressing rooms, I wanted to give the main actors of the play rooms that were illuminated with natural light, and those conditions seem to have been met. There are, of course, a lot of rooms that don't get much light at all.

There are other things that I have thought of, including the passageway in the rear from stage right to stage left. While that ought to be quite a basic and commonplace element [in theater construction], many theaters seem to go without it, making for a lot of pain and trouble [for the actors in a play.] Anyway, I have tried to eliminate all the problems experienced in the use of existing stages.

In addition, I have provided for the installation of a cyclorama [a curtain or wall, usually concave, hung or placed at the rear of a stage] if so desired. That can be done by suspending it from a rod or assembling one for that purpose. Also, by completely opening the door in the front and others, another cyclorama can be seen in the rear if it has been installed as well.

Another thing that is different from normal theaters is the fact that the leading edge of the stage forms the center of the geometrical circle of the theater. By that I mean that the arrangement of the theater puts the actors right in the middle of a circle as they perform. Put differently, with the audience completely surrounding the stage, the actors are at the center of the world - namely, the microcosm represented by the theater. Since the design of the theater allows for such an arrangement, the symbolism of the architectural plan also shows up there.

To approach the theater, you must first walk through the joint foyer of the ATM complex. As I explained in my last essay, the entrance hall contains the organ, and serves as a joint lobby for three sections making up Art Tower Mito: the theater, the art gallery and the concert hall. To reach the theater, then, you walk a few steps up a broad staircase, which takes you to the first floor. To reach the second and third floors, then, you climb up staircases on either the right or left. After entering one of the doors rimming the circular wall, you must walk along the wall until you find your seat. Basically there are no hallways except for the area around the staircases. Unlike the [Tokyo] Globe Theatre, I have eliminated the narrow hallways that are wound around the outside [of the performance space].



Aiming for the Perfect Theater


One thing about the design that I am still debating is whether it would be better to install seats that are not so high in quality. That does not mean that I want to go so far as to put benches in, but I do think that the best seats for watching plays should be slightly hard. If they are too comfortable, people might nod off. Anyway, I have not yet decided what to do with the chair problem. The trend in movie theaters nowadays is to install the best seats possible, but that does not mean that drama theaters have to be the same way.

Although a theater truly becomes a theater once it has an in-house producer, director and actors, there are times when other people want to use the same facilities. Some people might claim that designing the theater for a single purpose means that it cannot be used for other things, or at least that difficulties would be experienced trying to use it in different ways. After discussing that problem with Mr. Suzuki for a while, we decided that the best thing to do would be to design the theater with a really lofty objective in mind, the reason being that a perfect facility ought to be usable in other ways. It would be worse, in fact, to try to design a theater that uniformly tried to meet the needs of a variety of uses, making it a kind of multipurpose facility, for that would mean it wouldn't be perfect in any respect. To the contrary, the [advantages of the] different uses would tend to cancel each other out. So instead of doing that, we decided to focus the aim of the project on a single direction. It was a basic tenet of our design that doing so would actually inspire other new uses. At any rate, we believe that the ACM Theatre is unlike any other in Japan, even the Tokyo Globe Theatre, which seems somewhat similar but is actually quite different.

The next thing required is to have plays performed in the theater that take advantage of its uniqueness. However, come to think of it, most traveling dramatic troupes perform the same play at different theaters worldwide, And I mean completely different - some are big, some are small; the prosceniums differ in height, as do the widths of the stage. In other words, the actors have to make adjustments each time they put on a performance in a different venue, so even if they have a fixed format for performing, it has to be quite flexible. That's why the people who use performance spaces are accustomed to having a certain degree of flexibility. Seen the other way around, the act of placing confines or restrictions on the space allows it to respond better [to the needs of the performers]. We felt that it would be the most desirable to allow a relationship of tension to develop between a specific theater (i.e., the ACM Theatre) and a specific play.

From the standpoint of the designer [of the theater], whose role it is to realize all of these conditions, I believe it is better to construct the type of building whose space takes shape only after having dealt with someone (i.e., Mr. Suzuki) who has an ardent and stubborn idea of how to produce plays, and then pursuing that person's policy to the fullest. Because that attempt or experiment concentrates all the energy in a single direction, rather than trying to please everyone and adapt the theater to every use, some people might find themselves at a loss at how to use the facility. But I'm looking forward to seeing how the in-house dramatic takes advantage of the situation to the fullest.



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