Theater Consultant Joshua Dachs of Fisher Dachs Associates traces the historical development of theatre and asks the question, are these developments revolutionary or evolutionary.


Joshua Dachs: As we’re thinking about this conference, we were thinking about the themes that we’d build sessions around and digital media came up, of course. Some people thought it was really going to revolutionize the theater and that from this point on, everything would be different, whether because of streaming or VR and AR experiences. And I kind of in an offhand way said, I wonder if it really will. I mean, when there was film and later television came along, people predicted that the theater would be killed off and it wasn’t. People kept right on doing theater, and I wondered if this was going to be sort of like that, that we’d wring our hands and write articles. But in the end, things wouldn’t really change that much. Paddy Dillon said, “That sounds interesting. You should do a video about that.” Well, this is my penance for offhand remarks.

The history of theater is really the story of constant improvisation and innovation. We all know this instinctively. The Greeks didn’t start out by building stone amphitheaters. They looked around at the sky, the altars and the landscapes of their cities, and they improvised.

They made choices about how to use the places and things around them to make the communal experience they were looking for. They used places that already had a cultural significance, like threshing circles, and took advantage of features like hillsides and temples.

Over time, these improvised hillside venues were enlarged, improved and literally set in stone. They weren’t natural hillsides anymore, really, but a kind of idealized, sculpted imitation of the hillside. And they codified a new building type that they repeated again and again, which we recognize today
as the Greek amphitheater.

Then the Romans came along and they were more advanced engineers. They didn’t need a hillside anymore. They could build a version of the Greek amphitheater on flat ground anywhere
they wanted. They intentionally manufactured places of cultural significance from scratch in the cities
that they built around their empire. But in reality, these were purpose-built imitations of Greek imitations of important found spaces

Later in England, this happened again. An improvised performance on a wagon in a market square became a temporary stage in an inn courtyard. With each successive effort, the model was refined until someone got the idea to make a purpose-made, building along the same lines.

And the Elizabethan theater was born in 1576 in Shoreditch. This purpose-built rationalized building imitated an older improvised arrangement, and then was itself imitated. And 11 more courtyard playhouses were built along these lines in London over the next 47 years.

And it’s no accident that so many similar forms developed around the world and other cultures. Spanish corral theaters, traditional spaces for Kabuki, and Noh, and Chinese opera are all basically variations on a platform in a courtyard.

In the Renaissance, Italian artists, poets, composers, and architects were called on to create spectacular arrangements for the dukes and princes they served for important state visits and weddings. They used found spaces like courtyards and palace banquet halls, which were the multipurpose spaces
of their time.

They improvised temporary structures to accommodate the special guests and devised elaborate performances that featured music, dancing, and painted scenery using the newly invented techniques of perspective. And in about 1590, this led to purpose-built buildings based on the earlier improvisations
to accommodate these spectacles better.

The concept was refined, and by 1618, the proscenium theater was born and the new art forms Opera and Ballet artists devised brilliant ways to create exciting stage images and change them rapidly.

Once again, the early improvisations and found spaces were codified and refined and then disseminated
and repeated all over Europe and beyond. The cycle of found-space to imitation-found-space, to standardized-form-of-imitation found-space played out once again within each of these examples, there were endless little technical advances to allow people to keep working in the same way, but to do it more ambitiously or more profitably.

For example, with the emergence of ironwork in structural engineering. Architects were no longer constrained by the distance wood trusses could span, so they could build proscenium theaters
with larger and larger seating capacities, which the managers loved. This meant technologies were needed to see and hear better, like lighting, audio and later video image magnification.

But what was on stage in that old proscenium arch wasn’t really that different from 1608. For centuries, theater technology was something that was used in support of performance in a live venue. The venue in the technology were all connected to the same art form, constantly evolving, sure, but together.

But with the advent of recordings and radio, suddenly technology was the venue. And the same for film, television and the Internet. These technologies created new ways for the public to access performance that didn’t need to be live and mostly didn’t even need buildings.

In Europe and North America and other places too I’m sure the 20th century was full of theater
artists who sought new ways of working, and some of them were widely published and inspired people all over the world. These caused many artists to try and use existing spaces in new ways and led other, more radical ones to explore new physical arrangements and found spaces like tent or factories, churches or garages.

During this period, the Thrust Theater theater in the round and flexible studio theater forms all came into common usage, were refined, standardized and disseminated in their turn. In the theater, it seems to me, innovation hasn’t ever been driven by technology or even by architects.

In fact, the history of theater architecture is littered with unbuilt schemes for ideal theaters proposed by architects. In the early 20th century, this often meant proposing enormous spaces enclosed by immersive projection surfaces that surrounded the audience and stage like planetarium domes.

In the theater, innovation has always been driven by theater artists, mostly writers and directors, figuring out new ways to connect with an audience with whatever materials and technologies are at hand.

These are just a few 20th century examples from my part of the world. Margo Jones, the director
who was the mother of the American Regional Theater movement and who popularized the theater
in the round format. Tyrone Guthrie, the director who led the development of Thrust staging in his pioneering buildings at the Stratford Festival in Canada and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Zelda Fichandler, who built the second purpose-built Theater in the Round in the world for her Arena Stage company in Washington. She pioneered a way to produce in the round for 800 seats with full scenic capabilities and actors entrances that weren’t just down the aisles. Peter Brook, of course, who lived his own argument that any space can be a theater and demonstrated the power that can come from spaces
that have been scarred by life like abandoned theaters or train sheds, or just a carpet in a village square. And Jerzy Grotowski, whose productions with his small company in a flexible space in Poland, where he immersed the audience in the same space and setting as the actors, inspired a generation of artists to create new, unique environments for every play.

I’m sure you’re already thinking of the list you’d make in your own country. These are just a few examples, and there are many more. But if we step back and squint, it begins to seem that all of this is really a steady cycle, oscillating between found space and design space.

When artists find themselves too constrained by what’s evolved, they innovate again, improvising
in some new kind of found space. You’re just as likely to see a contemporary theater company performing on a platform in a market square today, or an environmental production in a garage, as you are to see a massive spectacle with extensive use of the latest technology.

And again, these are just from my frame of reference, obviously, theater isn’t ever just one thing.

If anything, today’s intense focus on community work, social justice and climate change, not to mention the enormous economic pressure that most theater companies are under these days, may make artists less inclined to rely on technical bells and whistles and more interested in seeing what they can do with the simplest of means.

Some of the most spectacular performances I’ve ever seen have been done with a handful of costumes
and props by vibrant, fearless actors on a bare stage under the open sky.

The old tools never go away, new ones just keep getting added to the toolbox so a new generation of artists can use them, in whatever way they see fit.