Evolution of Theatres Design

Subject: Art
Pages: 12
Words: 3005
Reading time:
11 min
Study level: College


Theatre design can be conceptualised as the art of designing space for the different kinds of performances such as drama, poetry and so forth. The performers are always in front of the audience in what is referred to as live performances. The participants in this form of art use various strategies to interact with the audience. This includes the use of gestures, spoken words, music and dance among others. The stage in which the performance takes place is designed to make sure that it communicates the theme of the art to the audience. The place in which the performance is taking place is referred to as a theatre. Theatre as we know it today has existed since ancient Greek. It is originally a Greek word which literally translates to “to watch”.

In this chapter, the author is going to take a look at the change in theatre design over the years. The reason for these changes will be made clear where applicable.

Origins of Theatre Space

As civilization was taking root in the ancient society, the need for a theatre or a place to watch was illustrated by the frequent rituals that were performed by the elderly and those considered wise in the community. There were a lot of tribal rites taking place in this society at that time. Religious activities had their place of honour and were characterised by special transformations in the society as well as important occasions and events that had to be observed. It is noted that for this to be carried out effectively, specific structures were constructed to accommodate the audience. It is further noted that at this early stage of theatre development, there was no difference or distinction between the actor and the spectator. The place where the performance took place was named according to the rituals being performed.

Rituals were later transformed and assumed a more distinctive form. It is noted that in this new form, there was a perceptible difference between an active and a passive participant. A clear distinction was evident as the audience was separated from the performers. To this end a theatre as a location was introduced which by then was mainly used by the priest who would engage the audience, helping them to communicate with supernatural forces.

Structural Change in Theatre Design: A Chronological Order

Development of Theatre in Ancient Greece

In ancient Greece, it is said that the person who invented tragedy and had knowledge of poetry came to Athens to make a presentation in a market place. This presentation later came to be referred to as agora. Theatre was constructed at the time using wooden stands on which the audience sat.

Several decades later the theatre collapsed on the spectators and many lost their lives. As a result of this, the design and construction of a better structure to accommodate spectators became a priority to members of the ancient Greece society. To this end, a stone built theatre was erected in Athens for the first time. The theatre or the resultant structure comprised of a circular stage and an altar that was used to perform rituals. In those days, attending the theatrical proceedings was mandatory to all members of the community. As a result of this rule, the construction workers were forced to come up with a space big enough to accommodate the whole community.

Accessing this theatre was free at the beginning until much later when fees were charged on the spectators. This development acted as a social differentiation factor. This is given the fact that it separated the haves and the havenots. It is noted that the poor in the community were unable or unwilling to raise the stipulated amount to access the theatre. However, given the importance of the rituals and observations taking place in the theatres, a subsidised fee was introduced to cater for the poor members of the society. This was aimed at helping them attend the festival and participate in activities that included religious rituals, politics, music, poetry and many others. Platforms from which the performers used to act were raised to allow the audience to have a better view of what was happening on stage.

Scenery was also used to differentiate one play from another. Offstage actions were used in ancient Greece. These were illustrated by the use of wheeled wagons that could for example show the death of various actors in the play.

In early theatre, problems and challenges were encountered especially with the open air market being used as a theatre on itself. This resulted to the closing up of theatres to make the performers audible to the audience. Although this was a good and timely idea, it limited the audience from viewing some scenes that illustrated live events. The problem was solved by the use of a wheeled platform wagon that could illustrate a palace placed on top and wheeled around the theatre.

Acoustic was another major problem or challenge that was encountered in ancient Greece theatre. A large portion of the audience could hardly hear the performance on the stage. The problem was solved by strategic positioning of the orchestra and the actors on a raised platform so that the audience could hear the performance well. Audibility was addressed effectively when the hilly sides of the town were used as theatre locations. The benches on which the spectators or the audience were to seat were curved out of the slope. This is to ensure that the audience’s area was raised. The actors or the performers were positioned below the spectators such that any sound that was produced could be heard clearly by all spectators.

In Hellenistic times, adjustments were made to improve the architecture of the ancient Greece theatre. Arch construction was commonly used and in fact, each city in ancient Greece had a theatre with improvised features. The improvised features were meant to accommodate all elements of the play. Auditoriums were constructed from a huge rock. This is the case in great theatres such as the Epidaurus. The latter had some of the most sophisticated features of the time. It was characterised by unique features including those of circular architecture. It contained a stage or a building which could accommodate more than 1200 people at a go.

Italian Theatre

In the 15th century, Italy had theatres with no decorations on the stage. This blandness was more than compensated for by beautiful curtains that were used instead of the stage decorations. Towards the end of the 15th century, Italian theatres incorporated many features in the plays that were staged. This is given the fact that different scenes could follow one another during the play without creating a break in the flow and cohesion of the same.

In the middle of the 16th century, the Italian theatres had sophisticated features that were used in other European theatres for the next 160 years. Italy was in the middle of the renaissance period and it had to improve its theatrical productions to match and even outdo the Greek and Roman classical productions. Before this, Italy had undergone a series of ups and downs in trying to figure out what was the proper way to stage a suitable theatrical production.

Intermezzi was a famous art as far as the development of stage in the mid 16th century is concerned. The art was characterised by very beautiful themes which needed a suitable stage that would change the act or play rapidly without altering the various segments. To achieve this, Nicala Sabbattini came up with three ways that would solve the problems that were being experienced. One of the ways was to manoeuvre wing to those who were on the stage. As a result of this, it was possible for the play to automatically transit from one scene to the other.

Commedia dell’art was one of the most famous theatre works in Italy. It has significantly influenced theatrical art in western history. The performance was characterized by mutual interaction between the audience and the actors. The popularity of commedia arts increased as the stage was structured in such a way that it integrated more surreal and realistic features in the play. To this end, theatrical art as an outcome of actors’ theatre became an industry in the world of performing arts.

Elizabethan Theatre

In the early 16th century, there existed two kinds of theatres with distinct characters and features differentiating them. The theatres were differentiated by the calibre or level of knowledge of the actors performing there. The first group of actors staged their performances in public and open places such as markets, inns as well as in the halls. These were members of the theatre that belonged to or was populated by the uneducated and unsophisticated performers. The other theatre was characterised by more educated and more sophisticated audience and actors. The performance took place in royal and respectable places such as courts and palaces. Mostly the actors were educated and drawn from higher institutions of learning in the society.

This form of theatre was used by performers who emerged after James Burbage constructed one of the largest public theatres. Another great theatre known as Globe was built where the famous Shakespeare art was performed. The stage was elevated to about 40 feet from the ground and it is here that the audience sat as they watched the plays and other performances. It was built in a circular form such that the audience would almost surround it. Above the stage, there was a roof that was referred to as the shadow of the heavens which sheltered the participants from the elements. The roof had pillars which were at the back stage. The pillars were constructed in such a way that the objects could either be raised or lowered when performing realistic illusions for the benefits of the audience.

There were doors leading to the place of discoveries which was used by some performers. Structures used during the play were frequently carried in and out after specific scenes have started or ended. Some structures especially those that were too heavy to carry around were left on the stage until the play was over. But those that were easy to carry around were occasionally brought in and out of the stage by workers. This suggests that the spectators were not bothered or did not mind the heightened level of activity on the stage during the movement of properties in and out of the stage.

The Elizabethan theatre stage was characterised by round, square as well as rectangular stages. The spectator benches were constructed to accommodate different kinds of spectators. This was based on the amount of money that a spectator could pay. Some spectators would stand on yards slanting towards the stage. Others would sit around the stage while others sat on private boxes that were expensive since they offered a clear view of the play.

This kind of stage was different from the Greek one in that there were different doors that were used by the actors. Additionally, the stage was flexible and this allowed for the unhindered movement of actors and performers. The actors and performers could access all the inner and outer stages, a feature that lacked in Greek theatres. Although the idea was borrowed from Greek theatres, it was improvised to accommodate many scenes without breaking the flow or cohesion of the play.

17th Century Theatres

Theatres in this century were characterised by many unique features. It was during this period that the first opera house was constructed in Venice. The proscenium arch was the first invention of the century. The feature was used to hide various scenes and machinery in the stage. Clockwork was also an additional stage feature that complimented the proscenium.

The century concentrated on mechanization of stage. There was need for a bigger back stage as a result of technological innovations of the baroque era. Theatre design was influenced by technological innovations especially in England and France. Spectators were now placed on the side of the stage. Decoration of theatre and layout was put into consideration. Spectators’ area reflected different shapes ranging from rectangular to U-shaped. The century saw a variety of stages which took different shapes to suit the performance. For instance dramas and operas were considered for elliptical shape theatres.

The use of boxes in theatre during this period was common but the idea was introduced in the middle of 16th century which had insignificant value at the time. During the 17th century, the boxes were used as an indication of social status. Other than the social status, the boxes were used in public theatres as payment booths for the audience entering to watch the play. Theatre employed this method of collecting payments from the boxes and throughout the century theatres were known as box pit or gallery theatres.

Theatres of the 18th Century

During this time, political developments influenced theatrical structures and architecture. Baroque theatre designs were popular during this time and it was characterised by the arrangement of audience in a more democratic manner. In courts the trend was the same whereby the royalty had a separate stage from the audience.

Galleries were lacking in most 18th century theatres. Towards the end of the century, the boxes falling out of favour and were used rarely. This increased the size of the theatre as more and more spectators started to appreciate theatre art. Reduced boxes gave people a chance to occupy enlarged spaces making the audience part of the stage. This was however different from the public theatre whose revolution was relatively slow. Boxes were still being used especially in opera houses.

Towards the end of the century many structural changes had taken place one of it being that decorations became a very important aspect of theatre design. The front house facilities were designed to accommodate the increased number of participants. There were structural changes in the ticket office and lobby area that led to the audience’s sitting area.

Transformation of Theatre in the 19th Century

During the 19th century, theatrical development was as a result of various revolutions around the world. The sociality among the citizens had a major effect on theatre arts and structural adjustments. Members of the middle class were some of the key players as far as the use of theatre was concerned. The middle class improved the place and changed the repertoire as they expressed their grievances to the authorities. Theatre became an avenue to satisfy individual’s social appetite. The association and interaction among people from different walks of life is another character of theatre at the time.

Towards the end of the 19th century the middle class spear-headed the enactment of a reform bill in which the new act on theatres was contained. London formed the first ever free theatre for the middle class. There was no construction of new buildings as other illegal buildings were still operating. The illegal buildings were hindering the introduction of new ones.

Symbolist theatre preceded the naturalism theatre. Poems were found to be more effective in this theatre as they delivered a powerful message to the people. Stage that favoured poetic plays were constructed in the early 19th century.

Twentieth Century Theatres

Theatre in the 20th century was dominated by the spread of forces that were introduced in the 19th century. Realism and naturalism were pervading all scenes in the theatres. Following these developments, experimental theatre in the 20th century rose to oppose the former movements. They based their concerns on the modernist as well as post modernist theory. It was noted that the best way to approach this opposition was through political theatres as well as aesthetic fine arts.

During this century art was dominated by different kinds of theatre designs which included box pit and proscenium. There was rebellion to this kind of theatre as designers started to incorporate past designs in the construction. For example Greek theatres were redesigned in the 20th century. A good example of a design in this century was the penthouse theatre. This was a recreation of the round theatre from the Greeks excavated round theatre. Elizabethan theatre designs were also imitated with the use of indoor madder market which was first used in 1920. Other structural designs that emerged around the same time include the swan theatre and the open air globe theatre. All of them had their stage lifted to imply that spectators were separated from the rest of the performing crew. These are all structural adjustments to theatre in the 20th century.

Theatres in the 21st Century

With the developments accompanying recent movements such as modernism and postmodernism, it is now possible to have complicated theatre art and personality. These are some of the aspects that have affected structural design in theatres today. The development has been driven by the use of computer generated designs and other stage equipments. Electricity is a key player in the development of modern theatre in which elevated stage with lighting was introduced. The art on the stage has also changed and is significantly different from that found in earlier stages. This is given that the current stage was constructed using state of the art equipments and materials. These have revolutionised aspects such as decorations and stage design.

Amphitheatre is another reflection of structural change in 21st century theatre. This is accompanied by a variety of features that enabled film production. The laboratory theatre was the greatest innovation as far as theatre is concerned. Photography played an important role in the creation of the most sophisticated stages for the audience.

Chapter Summary

In conclusion, it is clear that theatre has under gone various structural changes since ancient Greece. The changes can be tracked down to modern theatres. Theatres have gone through renaissance, commedia dell’arte, restoration comedy and neoclassical structural designs which have shaped the face and perception of theatres in the 21st century. With advanced technology and innovations, theatres can be considered as some of the most influential social institutions in the society.


Banham, M, The Cambridge guide to theatre, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006.

Beacham, RC, The roman theatre and its audience, Free Press, Cambridge, 2009.

Brockett, OG, History of the theatre, Prentice Hall, Boston, 2008.

Donald, M, The living art of Greek tragedy, Free Press, Bloomington, 2003.

Duffy, E, The stripping of the altars: traditional religion in England, 1400–1580, Yale Publishers, New Haven, 2005.

Elam, R, The semiotics of theatre and drama, New Accents, Prentice Hall Publishers, New York, 2007.

Finley, M I, The ancient Greeks: an Introduction to their life and thought, Penguin Publishers, London, 2006.

Gurr, A, The Shakespearean stage 1574–1642, 3rd edn, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003.

Hartnoll, P, The Oxford companion to the theatre, Oxford University Press, London, 2008.

Hodge, W, Twentieth-Century actor training, Routledge Press, New York, 2010.

McCullough, C, Theatre praxis: teaching drama through practice, London Macmillan Publishers, New York, 2010.

Ounsell, C, Signs of performance: an introduction to twentieth-century theatre, Routledge Publishers, New York, 2009.

Rehm, R, Greek tragic theatre, Routledge Press, London, 2009.

Richards, T, Poetics with tractatus coislinianus, reconstruction of poetics II and the Fragments of the poets, Hacket Publishers, Cambridge, 2009.

Styan, JL, Drama: a guide to the study of plays, Peter Lang Publishers, New York, 2009.

Walton, J M, Plays VI by Euripides Methuen classical Greek dramatists, Methuen Publishers, London, 2010.