The NAC Studio as a Theatrical Space
The main complex of the National Arts Centre/Centre National des Arts in Ottawa comprises three performance spaces. The Opera (Southam Hall) is the largest at 2300 seats, and is modeled on the proscenium-arch opera houses in the Italian style - suited for opera, ballet, musical theatre and concert presentations of all kinds.
The Theatre is a flexible performance space seating from 500 to 800, depending on the configuration. It has a large a l’italienne stage with a wide curved seating shell around a deep thrust stage that is optional. Both of these theatres have a rectangular stage space that is made to fit into the over-all hexagonal configuration of the general foot-print of the NAC/CNA complex. The Studio is the third and smallest of the theatres at maximum 300 seats, and it is the only one of the three spaces that strictly conforms to the hexagonal plan. The actual shape of the room (and the moveable seating modules) is dictated by the general ground- plan of the complex. It is not, however, a perfect hexagon with six sides of equal length, and is best described as a truncated hexagon (see fig.1).It is symmetrical, and there is a centre line through the space that passes through the two principal public entrances at opposite ends of the room. The tiered seating may be moved about, and it may also be used in a more conventional arrangement, with the audience on one side looking at the performance on the opposite side, ie, as in a proscenium-arch presentation, minus the arch. Nevertheless, three-sided arrangements of the seating and the “stage” are implied by the general geometry of the theatre, and many versions of the resultant three-sided scenography have been designed for the Studio.
The design of the NAC/CNA was conceived in the late 1960's by the Canadian architect, Fred Lebensold for the engineering firm, Arcop, inaugurating the project in 1969. The design is clearly concept-driven, as were many of the architectural projects of this period, and is based on the modules produced by overlapping hexagons - a shape that undoubtedly helped the designers to wedge the complex comfortably into an awkwardly-shaped plot of land between the Rideau Canal and the major intersection of Elgin Street and Rideau Street. It is located opposite Parliament Hill and constitutes an important element in the urban fabric of central Ottawa. A modernist structure, it is clad on the exterior in ridged concrete and is unrelieved by any fenestration. Some observers have classified the style as brutalist architecture, as the complex presents its foreboding facades to the rest of the city. This first impression is belied by the delight of arriving at a performance down the sloping drive to the main entrance facing the canal. It is as glittering and inviting as befits any theatre entrance, and NAC/CNA openings have all the glamour and sense of occasion of important social and artistic events. Over the four decades of its history, it has sometimes been the subject of controversy and criticism, but due to its consistent record of exceptional production and programming, the NAC/CNA has assumed its place as a major civic and national institution.
Lebensold’s idea of the overlapping hexagons was a stroke of genius. A rectangular plan would not have fitted happily into the odd-shaped plot of land as there would have been too much negative (lost) space. The advantage of the hexagons was that the shape of the plan could be expanded and adapted by “sliding” the hexagons over one another in an endless variety of configurations until just the right foot-print was found. Of course, this is a form of deconstruction and pure speculation, but it is surely the route that Lebensold took in the design of the complex.
Throughout the 1960's and 1970's, he had designed a number of theatres across Canada - large performance venues, often with as many as 3000 seats. His architectural legacy includes the Place des Arts in Montreal, the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver and the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown. Other architects continued this trend in the building of large theatre buildings, most of which were conceived as multi-purpose in that they were suitable for various theatrical and musical presentations. Many were used regularly as civic gathering places and clearly fulfilled a need in the cities where they were built. A network of these large barn-like theatres grew until nearly every major Canadian city had one. There were the twin Jubilee Auditoriums in Calgary and Edmonton, the Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg and the original O’Keefe Centre in Toronto, and these theatres continue to play an important role in the cultural life in these cities. Subsequently, a second series of smaller theatres was built (mostly about 800 seats), more suited to the production of seasons of plays, and there is now the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg, The Citadel Theatre complex of theatres in Edmonton, the Saint Lawrence Centre in Toronto and the Vancouver Playhouse.
Lately, there has been a new wave in the building of larger theatres for specific use, and Jack Diamond’s success with his new Opera House in Toronto, ideally suited for the production of opera and ballet, has made him the point-man for this kind of huge civic architectural project. Conscious of its important urban placement, never have acoustic and esthetic considerations been as finely- tuned. Presently, his design for a new concert hall for l’Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal is under construction. It is an adjunct to the Place des Arts complex and occupies a large chunk of real estate at the corner of Rue Ste-Catherine and Rue St-Urbain, and is part of the larger plan for the Quartier des Spectacles, an entertainment district in central downtown Montreal.
The current go-to theatre architect in Quebec is Eric Gautier. He has built a number of theatres and performance venues around Quebec, including l’Espace GO in Montreal. His most significant theatre project to date is probably his intelligent restoration of the Monument National on Boul. St-Laurent, which includes the Salle Ludger Duvernay (an 850 seat proscenium-arch house) and the Studio DuMaurier (a beautifully appointed rectangular theatre surrounded by two tiers of balconies, seating up to 300). Also a part of the new Quartier des Spectacles, it was an existing building of great historic and cultural importance. For decades the Monument was the headquarters of the Société St-Jean Baptiste, and it had a long and colourful past as the premier showplace of Montreal. Many great international stars, including Sarah Bernardt, had appeared on its stage, and it was at the Monument National that Gratien Gelinas presented his tremendously popular plays. During the 40's and 50's it became known as Starland and was home to burlesque shows, sometimes featuring strip-teaseuses.
By the early 1970's, the theatre had fallen into a dreadful state of repair and was not much used. It was at this time, through the generosity of the Toronto philanthropist, Arthur Gelbart, that the Monument National was acquired by the National Theatre School of Canada, which undertook the massive restoration project. All of this baggage surely increased the pressure on Gautier to “get it right”, which he accomplished with taste and aplomb.
The prevailing conventional wisdom regarding theatre architecture during the 1960's and 70's was for the adaptable theatre space. This thinking carried over into Lebensold’s design for the main theatre of the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto. Conceived in the 1960's, the idea was for it to be a flexible theatre with a wide rectangular proscenium-arch stage and the possibility of adding a deep thrust forestage for productions in the three-quarter round - the same idea he used for the Theatre at the NAC/CNA. This configuration was used for several seasons to great effect by the director, Leon Major, for his epic stagings with the scenographer, Murray Laufer. The influence of the famous thrust stage at the Stratford Festival was pervasive, and some people thought that they could have it both ways.
Current thinking in theatre architecture has changed radically since the 1960's, and now it is believed that a theatre’s character is determined by its specifics. The very flexibility that was seen as desirable is now thought to somehow weaken the theatre’s individual “signature”. After all, the theatre at Stratford has never pretended to be anything other than what it so emphatically is - a thrust stage modeled on the Jacobean prototype, intended for a specific repertoire. Interestingly, the theatre at the St. Lawrence Centre was completely redesigned in the early 1980’s by Ron Thom, the architect of the Shaw Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the Lake, and has re-emerged as the Bluma Appel Theatre - a fine example of an italianate proscenium-arch theatre, complete with box seats flanking the stage. The smaller space at the St. Lawrence Centre, the Jane Mallet Theatre, remains unchanged. It has very steeply raked seating and is a great venue for smaller musical events and recital performances, although Marion Andre’s Theatre Plus successfully presented several summer seasons of plays there throughout the 1970's and 80's.
Since the dawn of history and the very beginnings of our built environment, man has accepted the square (or rectangular) four-sided figure, with its inherent 90 degree angles, as the most practical and efficient module to enclose a space. The very idea of the street lined on both sides with buildings surely came about because of the economy and simplicity of the geometry of the right angle, resulting in a series of square (or rectangular) structures stacked alongside one another with their facades (that side of the rectangle facing the street) more or less aligned.
The famous rectangular grid of Manhattan, diagonally slashed by Broadway, has a north/south (uptown/downtown) axis, with an east side and a west side. The original cadastration was simply the most efficient way to order the urban space and may be traced to Roman settlements throughout Italy and Europe, many of which have evolved into the great European capitol cities. The Roman model for settlement was a square (or rectangular) castrum with a right- angular grid of streets with a more or less central square. This area was usually walled for its defence, as in the case of Florence, which began as a Roman castrum in about the second century, and gradually grew to include suburban areas and expanded to the other side of the River Arno. These newer areas tend to meander and conform to the topography or follow the shape of the river, but at each expansion, the wall was moved outwards to enclose the added areas until the fifteenth century, when it was some twenty-three kilometres in length with more than twenty gates.
Throughout these centuries of expansion, the original rectangular castrum held, as it does to this day. This kind of grid is not unique to early Roman settlements, however, and is common in the history of building in most cultures. Other geometric forms have inspired builders as well. The circular plan for domestic dwellings has been used in certain tribal societies, but it is rarely used for individual domestic building in Western culture, where it seems to have been used mostly for the planning of huge public structures and arenas in which large numbers of people were seated around a central event.
The hexagonal and the octagonal ground-plan are fairly common, but mainly in public architecture and often for temples and places of worship. Each of these forms is easily located within a circle, and the 360 degree geometry is accessible to everyone and determines much about the six-sided or the eight-sided figure. Sometimes domed, the circular plan of the hexagonal building might have six columns (or maybe twelve). Similarly, an octagonal plan might be supported by eight columns (or perhaps sixteen). How simple and elegant that in a hexagon with six equal sides, the angle at each corner is always 120 degrees (see fig.2), and in an octagon, the corners are always 135 degrees (see fig.3)!
The five -sided pentagonal ground-plan is much less common and is rarely seen in architectural history. This is inexplicable because the pentagon’s geometry is equally simple and elegant, but it is hardly ever used as the basis for a building plan. Perhaps the most well-known example is the Pentagon - the Washington headquarters of the United States’ military operations. It is an enormous complex of interconnected elements in which all of the outside corners are 108 degrees (see fig.4), and all of the intersecting corridors meet at the same unusual angle. The five-pointed star has been a constant in American heraldry and national iconography (see fig.5). From the original thirteen stars stitched onto the first flag of the original thirteen colonies by Betsy Ross to the current fifty, it has evolved into a particularly American star shape - in the same way that the six-pointed star of David (formed by two overlapping equilateral triangles) is an essential element in Jewish iconography (see fig.6). A perfect five-pointed star may be traced into the plan of the Pentagon, and one wonders if there is a connection between the plan and the stars on the flag.
Although these various geometric figures have been used as the inspiration for ground-plans and the containment of space, the square (or rectangular) plan is by far the most common. It is endlessly fascinating to parse this phenomenon in an attempt to understand its universal acceptance and appeal. The inexorable force of gravity and the fact that a vertical perpendicular creates a right angle at the ground level is understood by everyone. The resulting 90 degree angle is due to the push and pull of gravity, and the ancient device of the plumb-line is an indicator of perpendicularity anywhere in the world and is universally regarded as an absolute.
The diagonal through any square or rectangle is another factor that has acquired nearly mystical significance. The ancient Egyptians first expressed the special properties of the diagonal, which were ultimately confirmed by Pythagoras’ theory that when a square or rectangle is bisected into two right-angular triangles by a diagonal (or hypotenuse), the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the two remaining sides of the triangle (see fig.7). The mystique of the diagonal is further reinforced by the Renaissance invention of linear perspective. It is based on the knowledge that a diagonal through a grid of squares that converges to a vanishing point will produce a series of intersections of the orthogonals that is the basis of a perspective grid (see figures 8 and 9). This principle was also known to the ancients, but it had been largely forgotten until the Italian Renaissance, when architects and painters rediscovered it in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Linear perspective was readily accepted as one of the many ideas rescued from classical antiquity as part of the humanist mood of the Renaissance. Thus the importance and significance of the diagonal (and its near-magical properties) was re-affirmed once again, and drawing the diagonal through any symmetrical figure became the most fundamental and universal manoeuver in geometry.
Most of the angles in the public areas as well as in the service and administration areas of the NAC/CNA are resolutely 120 degrees, and remembering one’s way around can be disorienting for the uninitiated. So accustomed are we to the 90 degree universe, that it requires a conscious effort to accept the new angular geometry of the place. This is especially true for the scenographer designing in the Studio who, confronted with the new geometry, must embrace it and somehow find a way to let it suggest a method of deploying the audience and the playing space. The scenographer Francois Seguin achieved this with his designs for Périclès (1982) and Les Bonnes (1985), both with the director Andre Brassard (see figures 10 and 11). Historically, due to the different organization, size of audience and length of run, the French theatre seems to have produced more frequently in the Studio than the English theatre. Directors Jean Herbiet, Denis Marleau and Robert Lepage have each made exceptional use of the Studio and have given it its reputation for an unusual and cutting-edge style of presenting theatre.
In 1982 I had the honour and the great fun to have designed Sophocles’ Oedipe Roi for Jean Gascon (see fig. 12) - one of his last productions. He had worked extensively in various proscenium-arch theatres throughout his career, but had also been successful in the thrust stage format at the Stratford Festival, where his 1958 production of Henry Five is legendary, and his 1971 swirling version of The Duchess of Malfi is remembered as a high point in his career at that theatre. He had acquired his chops for the open stage at Stratford, and with his brother, Gabriel Gascon, as the king and the great actress, Charlotte Boisjoli as Queen Jocasta, he adapted instantly to the triangular-shaped stage like the consummate artist and professional he was, and he created his mise en scene so that the various locations - the palace at Thebes, the royal crypt, the beach, etc. were immediately credible. The transitions between the scenes were beautiful in their simplicity, and Oedipe Roi was an elegant adaptation for a triangular stage.
If the truth be told, the proscenium stage is highly versatile in the innumerable ways that it may be used. When the rectangular volume of the stage is perfectly masked by black legs, borders and a backcloth, it is the perfect void. Of course, its original form has evolved from the early perspective sets of the Italian Renaissance (see fig. 9), and this remains the historically orthodox application of the stage framed by a proscenium-arch - and the original reason for the term, a l’italienne to describe it. These early perspective sets were intended to be seen ideally from a single central point of view in the audience - but putting perspective aside, there is nothing about the perfect void of the proscenium stage that suggests a special shape or geometry. This kind of stage is ingrained in our consciousness and has become part of our collective cultural heritage. As such, it is unlikely to disappear so...learn to love it! There are very few theatre spaces with a design as special and powerful as the Studio at the NAC/CNA, and its particular geometry resonates so strongly that it is impossible for the scenographer not to respond and - go with the hexagonal flow.
for the NAC/CNA website ArtsAlive.ca
Montreal, August, 2010