Interview with Tim Pigott-Smith
I shall never forget my first glimpse of the theatre in Stratford, nor of the stage. Why did my heart beat faster? In all my years of theatre-going, in my years of working for the Royal Shakespeare Company, that has held true, and when I think of the re-working that is scheduled to transform this great theatre, my heart-rate rises again.
I can understand why my temperature rose when I first saw the red velvet curtain that filled the proscenium arch, teasing my eager eyes, by concealing from them the world of the play - The Merchant of Venice as it happens, with Emlyn Williams as Shylock.
But why did the building excite me? I harboured no secret ten-year-old ambitions to be an actor. And let's face it, the building itself has never been held in very great esteem. I fancy, ironically, that the only time anyone in Stratford has ever found anything nice to say about the 'jam factory', as locals referred to it in its early days, was when there was a suggestion a few years ago that it might be knocked down! Its strangely lumpen, unadorned facade is typical of a certain type of architecture that has never really been that popular in England. Nevertheless, I was excited. I was captivated, too, by the wonderful rotunda staircase, which will of course be preserved when the current plans are implemented. These plans, incidentally, will remove many of the later external increments to the building. Then, the bowels will be re-fashioned, to create a theatre adapted to the modern world - on and off stage.
This process will release the old building. The planned additions - as explained by architects Rab Bennetts and his associate, Simon Erridge - are really thrilling, intended to bring this unique old theatre into focus with the differing demands of the town, the contemporary tourist and the 21st century theatregoer. And inside, a similar journey is anticipated for the stage. The concept of a proscenium arch stage is fundamentally about concealment: it allows you to hide, and dictate. The modern taste is for sharing a world - it's still an illusion, of course, although the nature of the truth is different. So... farewell, proscenium arch.
Back in the fifties, I conceived the notion that actors were small people. This was because our seats were always in the gallery! And the gallery is miles away from the stage. You could always hear up there - actors then had no trouble projecting - the problem was that the stage was remote. Unless the playing was electric - Olivier's Coriolanus for example, or O'Toole and Ashcroft in The Shrew - you could easily become detached from the play, which seemed to be happening in another country. Two radical changes in the intervening years have intensified the need for a new form of staging.
Firstly, audiences now spend a much higher proportion of their time looking at actors on film and television screens; and they prefer the close-up; they like being right there, in the thick of it, where you can see the whites of the actors' eyes, not simply take it for granted that they do have eyes. Audiences demand a visual feast at least as much as an aural one. In this, they reflect a very strong move in our society away from the word; they demand a truth that is immediate; their demands are instant.
Secondly, actors and their ambitions have also changed. The profession once referred to as 'shouting in the evenings' has altered beyond recognition. The repertory theatres that supplied a regular flow of fully trained actors all ready to graduate to the RSC and the RNT, no longer exist. There are different domestic and economic pressures on actors now and they too enjoy the close-up.
Put these two movements together, and you produce a very strong shift away from that distanced world of the secretive proscenium arch, towards a form of staging that is revealing and immediate. The thrust stage, in spite of pre-dating the proscenium arch by centuries, provides the modern answer. Nobody really expected the Swan Theatre to develop in the way it has. Whatever the motives behind its construction, it cannot remotely have been expected that the Swan would show up the limitations of the main stage to such an extent that the new theatre is to be designed more in its image. Its dimensions and the relationships it creates suit contemporary tastes.
The 1,000 seat Courtyard Theatre auditorium, which will be the same configuration of the new RST auditorium, has 890 seats within 10m of the stage - that's 86% of the audience sitting nearer to the actors compared to the current RST which has 370 seats within 10m of the stage - that's only 26%.
There will be a very brief moment, between the opening of the Courtyard Theatre on the site of The Other Place, and the construction of the new theatre, in its image, in the main building. This is a crucial moment, when the lessons learnt from actors and directors can be implemented in the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
It is not always easy to stage a 19th or 20th century proscenium arch play on a thrust stage, and farce - which is essentially two-dimensional. But it is perfect for the plays of the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The thrust stage is a public space, which allows you to be intimate. It reflects the drama, and the society. And the experience for the actor is completely different.
When working a thrust stage, the audience has a close sense of you, the actor, as a three-dimensional being. You have to act with your back - on all sides in fact. You cannot hide - there is nowhere. You cannot lie. You have to "be", to exist as completely in character, as when facing a camera. You don't have to project so hard, you can draw an audience in more easily: You share the space with the audience. They are closer, so you can share things readily with them. You can't ignore them, as you sometimes can on a rough night behind a proscenium arch.
Interviewed in February 2006