The first structures used for theatrical performances in the United Kingdom were amphitheaters. These buildings were first introduced by the Romans who lifted the design from theaters in Greece. Most of them were in a semi-circular form and were initially constructed with wood. But did you know why the design of these buildings changed over time?
The majority of theater interiors made extensive use of wood, including seats, balconies, and structural supports. Due to the risk of fire, the average life of a theater at the time was just under 20 years which eventually pushed for improvement.
How Did the Early Theaters Look Like?
Unlike the outdoor amphitheaters introduced by the Romans, theaters during the medieval times were more elaborate. They were placed inside great halls, and barns, and on occasion would be set in open courtyards.
This eventually influenced the design of the Elizabethan timer-framed theater which were multiple-sided buildings with a covered platform stage on one side. The audience was situated in the covered galleries around the courtyard. (Source: Theatres Trust)
Theaters in the 17th to 19th Century
By the start of the Stuart period, the interest in theatrical performances increased. Aristocrats and royals would often host theatrical productions in their homes for celebrations. They would include music, dance, costumes, and even scenery.
Inigo Jones designed the sets for several rich families and then later designed theater buildings. He traveled through Europe and was heavily influenced by the architectural designs of the French and Italians. Jones introduced the first proscenium arch positioned over a thrust stage.
In 1642, theatrical performances were deemed illegal and most of the theaters were closed and demolished. Twenty years later, the monarchy was restored and the theater was back in business. Because of their loyalty to the Crown, King Charles II issued patents for two theater companies in the capital; Davenant and Killigrew. During this time, theater buildings started to change. The structures are now roofed with stages that featured grooves to easily slide scenery through. The stages also had larger spaces in the back.
By the 18th century, the Licensing Act of 1737 had stricter protocol on drama censorship. The Lord Chamberlain was in charge, and only patent theaters were allowed to perform dramas. Non-patent theaters would cover melodrama, ballet, opera, music, and pantomime. Theaters during this time were mainly made out of wood which meant they were always at risk of being burned. By 1794, the Drury Lane Theater in London introduced the first iron safety curtain. This eventually became a safety requirement for all big theaters. They also placed a large tang of water on the roof to easily extinguish fires that would occur onstage making the space more fire-resistance.
By the 19th century, the number of people attending theatrical plays decreased. This was mainly due to an economic decline and poor standards in production. Once again, theaters closed down and were converted for other things. (Source: Theatres Trust)
The Victorian Invention and Legislation
During the Victorian era, there were several innovations that influenced the design of the theater structure. The lighting changed from candles to gas, and later on to electricity. The shift to electricity made it safer for everyone and this led to stringent health and safety legislation.
The legislation also required that the audience could easily be evacuated in an emergency regardless of where they were sitting. Fire exits and escape plans became a requirement. (Source: Theatres Trust)