theatre

World Architecture Day interview with Roger Spence

In October 1998 after two years of reconstruction, a brand new Sadler’s Wells opened its doors to the public. This was a Herculean feat in the short time given, and served as a flagship model for National Lottery-funded public arts projects. In celebration of the building’s upcoming 20th anniversary and coinciding with World Architecture Day we sat down with Roger Spence, Project Director at the time, to discuss the building’s construction, the ideas behind it, and its legacy. 

The 1998 Sadler’s Wells theatre construction was a test-case for a particular model of public funding, being one of the first arts construction projects to receive National Lottery funds. Twenty years on and with the benefit of hindsight, do you think the model has proven a successful one? 

The answer is yes – and I suppose the only negative is that sadly there is no longer so much money from that lottery source going into the refurbishment, construction and maintenance of arts buildings. At the time, it was absolutely the right thing to do, and it has worked well.

As with any large initiative, there are examples where it hasn’t worked as intended. But the vast majority of National Lottery money has been very well spent – and I’m lucky to have done Sadler’s Wells and the Wales Millennium Centre, both exemplars of publicly-funded arts projects that continue to work fantastically well and as intended.

A particularly positive outcome was the bringing-together of a whole cohort of new architects, structural and mechanical engineers, acousticians and theatre consultants who now understand about arts building. It had been a very contained group of specialists until that time, and then with that flowering of funds it facilitated a new generation of design teams particularly knowledgeable on how to build theatres, concert halls, galleries, etc.

I wish, now, there was bit of a better balance towards arts construction projects through Lottery funding – there is still a  lot of work across the UK that badly needs doing. More controversially there needs to be significant investment in some public and access facilities in some of the West End theatres, if they are to offer better experiences  and access to theatre-goers and tourists.

Architects’ impression of the new Sadler’s Wells. Image: Islington Local History Centre. 

Your official role was that of Project Director (and Client Representative) – what did that involve?

I was the central person on the ground representing the client – in this case the Sadler’s Wells Foundation – and I often described myself as the translator in a three-way exchange between architecture, construction and theatre. At that point I had been working in theatre and dance for 30 years, and so I knew that language. Ian Albery, who needed a Project Director, knew that I had a thorough grounding in theatre production and administration, and already by that point had overseen several arts building projects. Because I had already built one complete theatre and undertaken major rebuilding on another, as well as several other smaller projects, I was versed in the architectural and construction language as well. Sometimes the different camps working on a project believe that they’re talking to each other, but often real meaning  and needs get lost in the technical jargon on all sides.

My job had many other facets including financial controls and programming – but it was principally about communication and ensuring the brief was delivered. We ran it as a construction management contract; facilitating a large number of smaller work packages – 50-odd single contracts that had to be scheduled. We found that a good way of working, a bit like working on a theatre production, where you’re bringing together all the different departments into a coordinated whole.

What is your favourite architectural feature of the building, or the corner you’re most proud of – and why?

I’m very fond of the new main entrance – added in 2014 – because it did what the earlier entrance didn’t do. It was important in 1998 to be as open and accessible as possible, making sure that visitors could see inside to all the levels of the main foyer, this we achieved with a large all-glass façade.  The  problem was that all the glass didn’t make the main entrance particularly stand out. People would often walk straight past. So, in 2013, during the refurbishment, we wanted to make sure the entrance was really clear. We put a big red arch up, and it seems to have worked.

It’s barely a corner but the auditorium works incredibly well with a number of invisible elements that make it more flexible.

There are a number of items from the 1931 building that people often pass by without realising – including the water carriers at the stage door, which was a bas relief that sat above the old main entrance. Near the stalls there are the classic ‘tragedy and comedy’ plinths, also taken from the front façade of the 1931 theatre. I like these small details, the original well, glimpses of the old Georgian and Victorian auditorium walls, that mostly go unnoticed.

Construction underway on the main auditorium. Image: Islington Local History Centre. 

Buildings can reflect the ideals of the organisations that inhabit them. In what ways did you find that the Sadler’s Wells ethos was baked into the bricks, so to speak?

We tried very hard to make the theatre accessible for as many people as possible – whether that was ensuring robust disabled access or presenting a literally and figuratively transparent face to the public. Arts spaces can often be quite closed-off, and we were very keen to try and demystify the experience.

Within the welcoming process, you should be very clear as to what’s going on. Why does the theatre have a “box office”? It’s because at one time, the only spaces you could book for were the boxes. People use this phrase, but it’s quite opaque, so we very specifically say Ticket Office. There aren’t any boxes anyhow, historically people would use these boxes to be seen at the theatre rather than necessarily seeing what was on stage, which in turn did interfere with sightlines. Why is it called a “dress circle”? Not everyone dresses up nowadays. First and Second Circle is much clearer.

The Community and Education Centre was another important aspect. Even in the ‘80s and ‘90s, most theatres wouldn’t have an area that was focused on community and education work – it felt as though it was the first one. It was a clear demonstration of the broader, inclusive social role that we want theatres to have nowadays.

Access for those with disabilities was at the front of our minds. We had an advisory group called Freefall, comprising about 12 people, including a representative for older people, the blind and partially-sighted, those with sickle cell disease, the deaf, people with learning difficulties and others. They monitored the design, and the team was supervised by Judy Monahan. It could be tricky at times – what worked for a visual disability might not work for others – but having those voices (and responding to them) was important to us.

For the first time in Sadler’s Wells’ history, the 1998 building was purpose-built for dance. How does a dance theatre differ from another theatre?

We kept the original framework of the auditorium – which wasn’t designed exclusively for dance, and there were a lot of discussions with the architectural team about where was the best place to have the auditorium: did we knock down the whole building, did we keep the auditorium? In the end, we decided we would keep the skeleton of the 1931 auditorium which included sections of the Georgian and Victorian theatre walls.

The thing about dance is that you need to be able to see bodies and feet right down to the front of the stage, whereas, to a certain extent, sightlines in drama and lyric theatre aren’t quite as finely tuned. Dance provides you with far greater strictures in terms of ensuring sightlines. By keeping the auditorium, we had to do several things. We moved the stage a little further back, we changed the rakes on all the seating tiers to make them steeper, we ensured the stalls didn’t extend too far back to improve vertical sightlines. At the same time, we managed to get in almost exactly the same number of seats as in the old theatre. So, we retained the capacity while improving sightlines with these tweaks.

An aspect of many theatres, historically and now, is a raked stage. They were used to facilitate perspective scenery and ensure performers were still visible upstage. Rakes are a nightmare for dancers, so we went to a specially-designed sprung flat stage. A huge amount of work went into that stage design – and it’s still going strong.

View from the main stage. Image: Philip Vile. 

Certain aspects of the build that we know are important now – the inclusion of a disabled access area in the centre of the stalls, for instance – would not have been on the minds of those building the theatre’s previous incarnation. How else might have the priorities of theatre construction shifted since Frank Matcham (& co.) designed the 1931 hall?

The foyer size is one – that was a famous complaint that people had about the 1931 theatre. All of the public spaces were extraordinarily restricted. You had to go out of the building to get into the higher levels of the auditorium. The bars were hot, stuffy, and occasionally smelly. So, these were concerns that were a priority, and we had to solve.

Toilet numbers – particularly for women, has always been a traditional problem for theatres, so we took the regulations for the number of women’s cubicles, multiplied them by two, and added some. It might be a mundane point, but it stops queues building up and makes for a more pleasant theatre experience.

We wanted to give visiting companies a better experience – really good dressing rooms, good hanging facilities, most had their own showers. Except for “star” dressing rooms that was unusual for the time. What we wanted to do was ensure that everyone had good facilities, including disabled performers. They’re really well kitted-out.

We created the café space which serves as a foyer for the Lilian Baylis Studio, but at the same time provides a green room, a space where staff can have meetings, and a place where the public can gather and eat. Unusual and expected not to work, but in fact it has been very effective.

You mention the wheelchair seating in the centre of the stalls, We were determined to have far more seating for wheelchair users than the statutory requirement and that most should be in really good positions. I had seen this format work in another new theatre and we adopted it very effectively.

Sadler’s Wells Theatre, 1935. Image: Islington Local History Centre. 

There are a number of tales from the re-opening that have persisted down the years – some apocryphal, some no doubt exaggerated. What  challenges were you up against in those opening few days?

There were certain areas of the building which were still a bit of a building site when we opened. We had run into a bit of a problem just before opening that has caused unforeseen difficulties and certainly for the first few weeks we were using temporary licenses and were subject to checks, due to the builders being on site. The project was phased, so there was always an expectation that there was going to be more building work going on.

It was the opening night, with Rambert. Certainly, the audience was in the auditorium, they were definitely twiddling their thumbs for a few minutes, and Ian did come on stage with an announcement. The figures might have got distorted over the years, I have seen written reports of 2 minutes and a quarter of an hour, never 30, but it was possibly  eight or ten, however the story is broadly true.

We’re soon to start construction on Sadler’s Wells East, our new 500-seat theatre at East Bank in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. If you could have done one thing differently when you were overseeing the building of the theatre, what would you have done and why?

To be honest, the answer is no – not really. It’s a testament to the original architects that when we did revisit it all in 2012 through to 2016, when we completed our renewals and renovations, we didn’t physically alter anything in terms of the planning and structure. Making the main entrance more visible was a small intervention, but other than that, everything stayed where it was. We had a number of meetings running up to the 2013 refurbishment where staff had the opportunity to raise issues, but nothing significant came up. Physically, from a planning point of view, it works.

The theatre in Stratford won’t have the same site constraints and doesn’t face some of the limitations that we faced here, so there should be a bit more freedom. More wing space, less of a height restriction, a rectangular site.

The Architects Journal in 1998 thought the building “[caught] the mood of the time.” You’ve overseen a number of high-profile arts construction projects since, including the Wales Millenium Centre and the National Concert Hall in Dublin. Do you think that mood has changed in any way? 

People are always sounding the death knell of theatre. Saying that in twenty to thirty years’ time, theatre won’t exist. It will! It may not exist in exactly the same way, but there’s always going to be a need for a direct relationship between performing artists and audiences. The visual language of dance will be just as relevant, perhaps more so, in the context of a proscenium presentation than other performing art forms. Will it shift? Not massively. Developments around scenery and staging, lighting and audio-visual will all contribute to the tools that creators use, but won’t mean a sea-change in terms of how theatre continues to operate. We’ve been at it since mediaeval times, and it looks like it’s here to stay.

Sinking of a time capsule, 1997. The capsule contains – among other things – a piece of the wooden floor from the de Valois Room, a copy of the original deeds of the land dated 1834, a conker from Lilian Baylis’ commemorative horse chestnut tree and a bus ticket of route 19. Image: Islington Local History Centre. 

Header image: Philip Vile.