Sunday 28 May 2017

Access all areas

Foyers at Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam (Photo Pepijn Bakker/Architectural Odyssey)
Foyers at Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam
(Photo Pepijn Bakker/Architectural Odyssey)
I can think of few concert halls and theatres which could be described as a pleasure to leave. I think that Het Muziektheater in Amsterdam, with its amazing staircase, comes into this category, but most involve some sort of audience log-jam. Audience members seem to inevitably get funnelled somewhere, usually I suspect because either the venue is old and access is inevitably tricky or because economics meant that there could be no space for ideal audience access.

I remember that an early design for the re-build of the Covent Garden Theatre (which eventually took place from 1997-1999) included a huge spiral staircase leading down from the amphitheatre and linking the various levels at the front of the theatre. This used the space which is now taken by the restored Floral Hall and the staircase inevitably disappeared with the decision to restore the Floral Hall. What we have now is a design which perpetuates the old theatre's warren of passages. I feel that the designers of the London Coliseum re-build seem to have got this rather better, in the way they have opened up and linked the various access routes, again in an old and historic theatre. Though access does vary in different areas of the theatre, and there is usually a log-jam on the main staircase.

Foyers at the Roundhouse, Camden
Foyers at the Roundhouse, Camden
If you look at the Roundhouse with a theatre full to capacity the access routes seemed to barely cope and the staircase might look huge but its throughput has certainly certainly left much to be desired when we have attended performances. The theatre might work well with an audience of active young people, but with an audience whose members were often middle aged and elderly and needed to go carefully on the stairs, the flow rate was very low.

And if you have a mobility impairment which requires you to use a lift, then leaving a theatre, even a modern one, means waiting for a long period for a lift. Another technical/economic limitation (lifts are small and expensive) which has not yet been solved.

In older theatres, and when I was younger, you went into rambling theatres via the front (or the side if you were in the Gods as we usually were), but came out via the fire exits which gave you lots of different exits. Some theatres are still like this, but rather more often nowadays the fire exits are 'alarmed' (alarmed at what I might ask? Alarmed that someone might actually use them) and you can only use them in a genuine emergency. This leaves the audience forced to exit via the crowded circulation areas.

I am sure that someone versed in the history and economics of theatre and concert hall design can explain why we have got to such an unsatisfactory state. But from an audience point of view, a fine performance can too often be marred by having to shuffle and queue your way out of the theatre (or push your way along the row and leave early before the applause has finished).

As venues are frequently mixed use (particularly outside London), I do wonder whether designers and technical teams remember that the audience for opera is often middle-aged and elderly. Many will be on limited incomes and so will be sitting in areas like the Upper Circle which are accessed by many stairs. This all has an effect on the speed at which the theatre can be emptied, and the pleasure (or not) of the experience.

It is about time that theatre and venue management and design teams (and the funders of such projects) took on board that a theatrical experience does not finish when the curtain goes down. That the ability to attract repeat audience will not depend just on what they have seen in the theatre, and what their experience of bars, restaurants and foyers was like. It will also be coloured by access issues, particularly so for opera as it is an art form which you grow into. It seems to be perpetually supported by an older audience, one which will have greater access needs.

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