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Build Me a Story

The evening’s lecture, occasioned by the book release of What If…?: The Architecture and Design of David Rockwell, brought together stage director Jack O’Brien and director of space David Rockwell, AIA. Moderator and monograph editor Chee Pearlman noted that they “collaborate in theater and create worlds.”

Discussing the campfire story origins of theater, O’Brien explained the need to exceed previous versions, noting that theater “will always need a ‘where,’ and nobody gives better ‘wheres’ than David.” While Rockwell admitted that he started as a fan of “live experience in a place with a story,” one aspect keeping his interest is that theater is an early adopter of technology, from Walter Gropius and Josef Urban to Robert Lepage’s recent Ring Cycle, and lighting to lasers to overly complicated robotics.

Pearlman noted that Rockwell is “used to extreme team building.” He confirmed this: “In design we all collaborate, and we’re ready for creative risk. Finding the engine that drives it is the job of the designer, and how things move helps the director get from one place to another.” O’Brien said that “theater takes more than a village” to produce. Showing examples of rotating sets and sliding screens in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Catch Me If You Can, Rockwell explained that most sets are designed to fulfill dual roles. “If you’re not risking, there’s no tension, no edge,” he said.

Reviewing projects that create the story-telling space, Rockwell showed the demountable TED Theater composed of 8,000 Douglas fir timbers that are designed to withstand reassembly 10 times. More enduring, NeueHouse, a coworking space on East 25th Street, features tiered seating for in-house events and lectures. Both bring large groups together in an intimate setting where the audience feels connected to the action on the stage.

What could designers do to make theaters better? O’Brien exclaimed: “More toilets!” Some theaters, such as the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in Paris, he said, are a “thrill to be in, regardless if the play is any good.” But functionally, he insisted, theaters need to be easier to load in and out. Current configurations are too time consuming and costly; moving one production to a theater next door costs 24 hours and $800,000.

Asked what satisfied him more, designing architecture or theater, Rockwell replied, “Theater is more interesting because it isn’t defined by a box…but the excitement is the engagement with the team.”

James Way, Assoc. AIA, frequently contributes to eOculus.

Event: Architecture and Theater – Redefining the Performance Experience
Location
: Center for Architecture, 01.14.15
Speakers: David Rockwell, AIA, Founder and President, Rockwell Group; Jack O’Brien, Director, producer, writer, lyricist; and Chee Pearlman, Director, Chee Company (moderator)
Organized by: AIANY Cultural Facilities Committee
Sponsored by: Rockwell Group