My space

11 March 2021

Originally published in Behind the Scenes in January 2020.

Contributors: Pete Harris Lindop, Adam Garrett, Becci and Chuck McDaniel, Theresa Chapman and Timothy Reid


International School of Geneva, La Chataigneraie
Switzerland
Pete Harris Lindop

1. Describe the teaching space(s) or theatre space(s) you work in.

We have one main theatre space, which is a large room with windows at one end and a wooden floor. It is painted black and has a lighting booth, rig and 5 metal chariots which roll out just under the rig and allow easy access to the lights. This also allows us to achieve some special effects by dropping things directly onto the stage (snow, water, coloured plastic balls, etc). The space is fairly flexible and has been made more so by the recent purchase of a substantial amount of modular staging from StageSystems in the United Kingdom.

It is partitioned from another equally large room, the Salle Polyvalent, which we also teach in. This room has windows on two sides and at times it can become unbearably hot.

In addition to this we have a large-ish classroom space which we use for IB Theatre work and where our main learning environment is focused as well as a recently acquired black box studio converted from an old IT room.

2. What are the things you love about this space?

Most of all, we love that the space is ours… at least for the first two of the three terms in the year. Once we get to April we have to turn our spaces over to exams but until then we can leave staging up, leave props in place, tape down floors, experiment, run lighting workshops and because it is a bit beaten-up, messy, dirty and dark, no-one else wants it which is PERFECT for us.

Moreover, the most exciting moments in the year invariably come when students have classes in and around a set for a production that they are not involved with. It is exciting to watch them trying to figure out the thinking behind the design choices and there have indeed been times where this has been stretched into a lesson – a welcome relief when combining long production hours with regular classroom teaching.

We are upstairs in one corner of one of our buildings and have gradually taken over the end of a long corridor. This means we can work immersively outside the space as well without disturbing too many other people and create a sense of identity which involves regular transformation. We want students to be curious about how the space will change from week to week and enjoy being able to give them creative opportunities to bring the areas around the theatre to life in interesting ways.

3. What challenges do you face working in this space?

I know it’s not very community-spirited but our biggest challenge is sharing the space. We lose the entire area for the summer term due to exams and are forced to decamp to other spaces around the school. These may be physical education halls, classrooms, outdoors or even a tent. (The tent was pretty miserable, either being too hot or too cold.)

The impact is mainly the pressure on spaces and teachers. We pack a Year 10, Year 11, Year 13 Collaborative, Year 8 performances all into the spring term because we don’t have enough rehearsal time to do them in the winter term. This puts a lot of pressure on teachers, perhaps more than students, as we are only two full-time teachers who are therefore doing IB Theatre whilst doing productions, as well as regular classes.
In terms of the actual room though we wouldn’t change much. Theatre always exists within constraints and we don’t want things to be too perfect. We have a lot of flexibility, get left alone and no one is precious about the room because it is old and tired. What else could you ask for to make theatre?

4. How do you overcome these challenges?

We don’t really – we just have to manage. A positive aspect is that it means our last term is necessarily a little calmer which (theoretically) allows us to focus on planning.

5. Tell us about a production/performance that you did in this space that you are particularly proud of. How was the space used? What about the space worked?

Here are some photos of a version of ‘The Odyssey’ combined with bits of the Trojan War story, called Odysseus – the Story of a Hero. We opened up the partition so we had a massive traverse stage, put two scaffolding towers at either end and then put a 14m x 7m wooden frame down which we filled with 15 tonnes of sand. Cheap, bold, exciting and easy to recycle. There was a cast of 64 Year 10 students and they loved it. We had to water it each night so it wouldn’t dry out. It took 45 minutes to clear it. People still talk about it two years later.

6. If you had 3 magical wishes for your space, what would they be? (Let’s pretend money is no object, so wish away!)

  • Not having to share it.
  • Not having to share it.
  • Not having to share it.

Calderdale Theatre School
United Kingdom
Adam Garrett

1. Describe the teaching space(s) or theatre space(s) you work in.

We are very privileged to perform our work in Square Chapel Centre for the Arts. ISTA students actually had the chance to work here when we ran the ISTA Calderdale festivals so any students from those years will remember this amazing space. As the name suggests, the space is inside an old chapel. When you are in the auditorium and you look up you can still see all the old beams going across the top and the acoustic is wonderful to work in, no matter what sort of production you are creating. Square Chapel Centre will look very different now to how it did back when ISTA was last there. It has undergone a huge renovation recently and reopened with a big new front of house area and created a new black box theatre which we have also used for recent productions.

2. What are the things you love about this space?

The atmosphere is very special. Although the space has very high ceilings, you can really get a
sense of intimacy in there and keep an audience with you.

3. What challenges do you face working in this space?

Not many! With it being an old building however you can struggle with the temperature sometimes.

4. How do you overcome these challenges?

Turn the heat down! Both literally and figuratively.

5. Tell us about a production/performance that you did in this space that you are particularly proud of. How was the space used? What about the space worked?

Last year we did Peter Pan for the first time in our 50 year history. Due to budget constraints we weren’t able to have a fly tower in the production so we used physical theatre, lifting and music to capture the mood of the flying sections and the space really helped with that. We kept the set very minimal and had our smallest cast yet (19 actors). But due to the grandeur of the space, we were truly able to transport the audience to Neverland without using special effects or gymnastics.

6. If you had 3 magical wishes for your space, what would they be? (Let’s pretend money is no object, so wish away!)

  • A fly tower to see if it would make that production any more or less magical.
  • To move the seating structure to create a wider variety of stagings such as traverse or in the round.
  • To do a ‘takeover’ of the whole building for a huge promenade production in the future.

John F. Kennedy School, Berlin
Germany
Becci and Chuck McDaniel

1. Describe the teaching space(s) or theatre space(s) you work in.


This is a photo of our Small Aula. It’s our main classroom as well as the stage for class shows and intimate performances. We can put up platforms on the floor and put chairs on them to give us five levels for our main audience seating. We also have stadium-style seating in the balcony. We can lower screens on the windows to create a totally dark space.

The above photo shows the other side of the Small Aula. You can see the balcony and light booth. The green doors pictured can all be entrances at the back of the theatre.

Our main performance space is the Large Aula. In the photo above we have a screen set up across the back of the stage for projecting scenery. You can also see part of the truss system for hanging lights.

The main problem with the Large Aula is that it is also our school’s cafetorium. This picture shows students and teachers having lunch. You can also see the window (in the yellow wall) where the tech booth is located.

Here you can see the front of the stage and some of the windows that run along both sides of the audience area. We have curtains to cover the large windows when we do performances. You can also see the truss system out over the audience and the ceiling panels that give us good sound quality.

2. What are the things you love about your spaces?

Having a large, open space for drama classes means we can do a wide variety of activities. We can even put students in the foyer and hallway for small group/duet work to maximize the space and it’s in the fine arts building with no other classrooms nearby, so our noise never becomes an issue.

The Large Aula stage is quite functional. It’s about 9 meters across, which is not a large stage but it allows us the space to do a variety of settings. This space was renovated about five years ago and the truss system allows us to put lights almost anywhere. We also have a sound system that includes speakers on the sides of the stage and halfway back in the audience which give us good acoustic coverage during performances.

3. What challenges do you face working in this space?

They are many. Neither theatre has a ceiling high enough to properly hang and focus lighting instruments. We have almost no wing space on either stage, which means you cannot put a large number of actors backstage to wait for an entrance and you cannot put set pieces or furniture conveniently offstage. The low ceilings on the stages also means we have no possibility to fly scenery. Consequently, much of our scenery is done with projections across the back of the stage.

The Small Aula was built with an overhang in the ceiling near the front of the audience space which means lights coming from the back of the auditorium either hit the overhang or beam onstage almost dead-on.

One of our biggest problems is the lack of wing space. The photos below shows how much space we have all around the stage. The right side of the photo shows the roll door that connects the two stages. Opening the door allows us to put scenery (and actors) out of the way during a show by putting things on the other stage. It also means there is really only one place where the scenery can move on and off the stage.

4. How do you overcome these challenges?

A major problem in the Large Aula is the tiny window that communicates from the tech booth to the auditorium. Lights and sound people inside the booth often cannot hear or see well enough to do cues and our communication between the booth and backstage is hit or miss. We generally end up pulling the lighting board and sound board out in front of the booth and running tech from tables set up at the back of the auditorium.

Both stages are very high up from the floor of the audience. This effectively means we have to paint the bottoms of tables and we have to be careful about girls wearing short skirts because of the sightlines.

Lights have to be fairly simple. We often don’t use any colour lighting except for special effects. The limited height of the trusses means that we have to put most of the instruments close to the stage to get enough angle to prevent too much light coming straight at the stage.

5. Tell us about a production/performance that you did in this space that you are particularly proud of. How was the space used? What about the space worked?

We have great students who are enthusiastic about theatre which makes putting on productions (even with some of our challenges) completely worth it.

The Small Aula stage has black curtains that can surround both sides and the back of the stage making it look very professional. Because there is a storage space under the stage, feet can sometimes make a lot of noise as actors move around but the carpeting that is there helps a bit to deaden the sounds. We work around the issues of bad lighting positions by putting most of our instruments rather close to the stage and since it is a small theatre we can use mostly smaller instruments. The curtain across the back also allows us to quickly move scenery and furniture on or off stage for scene changes.

The Large Aula stage also has black curtains surrounding the stage. They are on travellers so we can quickly open and close them or adjust them around scenery pieces. We use a large screen across the back of the stage for projected scenery which allows us to transform the stage into anything we want.

For the jail scene in Thoroughly Modern Millie, we used free-standing frames that had dowel rods running from top to bottom to create the bars of the cells. They were light and easy to move and set for quick scene changes.

We add platforms to create levels which helps with the sightlines.

We also have 3-sided scenery pieces that roll easily (based on the Greek periaktoi concept.) The seven units allow us to do quick scene changes by simply turning to a different side of what we call a ‘rollie’ and we can easily move them into different configurations. In this photo you can see the suggestion of the interior of Pantalone’s house in The Servant of Two Masters. The ‘rollies’ are compact enough that they can fit easily through our narrow wing space, they are weighted in the bottom to add stability and the triangle shape makes it hard to tip them over, which makes them safer. They can also be painted and decorated to suit any setting we need.

6. If you had 3 magical wishes for your space, what would they be? (Let’s pretend money is no object, so wish away!)

1. I would love to build a brand new performing arts centre on top of our Large Aula. This wish could give us a dedicated space that doesn’t require us to take down lunch tables (and re-set them) for every performance, as well as improve our lighting capabilities and give us fly space over the stage. Comfortable seats for the audience would be a real plus.

2. I would love to lower the height of both stages. Currently, they are each about 1.5 meters up from the floor level which means the audience must constantly look up to see the show.

3. Lastly I would build a large storage space that is easily accessible to the stage. Carrying large furniture pieces up and down the stairs is difficult and we also have no place to put ‘rollies’ that are not used for a show. (And let’s not even mention the grand piano that belongs to the music department…) It would be a dream to have space for everyone’s storage needs.


Tanglin Trust School
Singapore
Theresa Chapman

1. Describe the teaching space(s) or theatre space(s) you work in.

The Berrick Building Performance Hall is Tanglin Trust School’s primary performance space which houses all manner of theatrical, musical and large school gatherings. On first sight, the space is a cavernous empty hole that lacks any of the trimmings you’d expect to see in a traditional theatre. Certainly when I first arrived at Tanglin 10 years ago my initial reaction was: ‘How on earth can I do anything in here? It’s got no sides!’

2. What are the things you love about this space?

Over time and with experience of working in the space I have come to love it and embrace the challenges it presents. I love that everytime I have a performance or event in the space I have a blank canvas. I am challenged to think creatively and equally without the confines of a proscenium set up, the world is my oyster in terms of theatrical staging possibilities. The various options for seating configurations allow for almost every layout. Staging is moved in and organised as required and curtains or structures can be added to shape and frame the space. In addition to this we are blessed to be supported by teams of technicians to support with sound and lighting and a team of operations staff who can whizz in and move the huge seating banks and staging in a very short time.

3. What challenges do you face working in this space?

As with anything there are challenges but being someone who loves finding creative solutions to problems, I always revert to my mantra: ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way!’ As head of Junior School Drama I often stage productions which have 100-200 children with a requirement for them to be seated in choral risers in view of the audience. In addition to this, space needs to be made for a class of musicians. This is the biggest challenge by far. Also with large spaces and little framework in place, the cost of laying flooring, building structures and hanging items can be prohibitive, so again, creative thinking and a recycling approach is required.

4. How do you overcome these challenges?

An example of one of our performances where we managed to house 100 children on set, with a band area and a themed props area so children didn’t need to go backstage was The Calypso. This was an original performance set on a cruise ship. We began with the choral risers and then built a structure using scaffolding (outsourced from a scaffolding company) and existing steps which we try to recycle as much as possible. We boarded the structure and built two large funnels which we hung above. On one side we then created a band zone with fairy lights and chiffon fabric to make a glitter curtain and on the other, laid and boarded some staging with wall structures which became the ship’s store. The children designed the logo and named the ship, which was then placed onto the funnels and formed a theme for the look of the show. For this scale of production it has to be functional and practical. Often the list of limitations is quite long before starting with a design. We were all pleased with the outcome and the children were so appreciative of the effort that went into their set.

In contrast, our Year 3 children perform an original musical play each year in the same space. We have eight casts of 24 children. Without the restriction of seating a very large audience and essential choral risers I have been able to use the space quite differently. The setting for the play Tunnel Tour Guides was a secret underground headquarters. I decided to build the headquarters in the space making the performance both promenade and immersive. The most rewarding thing about this is seeing 7 year olds independently lead their parents through a performance which moves around the space. Having the technology in the space enables me to cue the children subtly using projection, sound and lighting.

5. Tell us about a production/performance that you did in this space that you are particularly proud of. How was the space used? What about the space worked?

Most recently we created a WWII themed devised performance for our Year 6 children. For this project I was able to play with more abstract ideas and used the children’s work to form the basis of the set by transferring their writing onto large set pieces – both hanging and on the covered flooring. We also built a large sculpture from willow branches which wrapped the space and children made poppies which they attached to the set. These ideas combined with projected portraits of the cast in role really made for a moving an impactful backdrop to the performance.

6. If you had 3 magical wishes for your space, what would they be? (Let’s pretend money is no object, so wish away!)

Whilst there are so many positives for a space like this, there are always a few wishes! Firstly I would love to have more options for closing the space off with curtains in a tracker system. And in my dreams, the ability to fly things (and children) in and out would be a wonder I would love to try. We are currently looking at renovating and re-designing some more intimate performance spaces on campus so I am looking forward to viewing other spaces in Singapore and seeing how these can be used to create a more intimate theatre experience for both performers and audience.


Clarkstown North High School
United States of America
Timothy Reid

1. Describe the teaching space(s) or theatre space(s) you work in.

We perform on the auditorium stage at our high school here in New York. It is a 700 seat auditorium and not a dedicated ‘theatre’ so as such we have no real fly space and the wings are a bit small. We use it in its full state for our spring musical. I build a smaller seating option to mimic a black box when we do our fall shows. We built platforms that seat the audience in front of the stage and then add seating platforms in front of those and on the sides. We get about 80 seats and it feels more intimate for our fall production.

My theatre classroom is a real blessing. It was the old band room before the school expanded so it has high ceilings and two back practice rooms that I turned into an office and a prop room. I’ve taken time to colourfully paint it, added posters and shelves for the theatre library and invited guest student artists to add to the artwork. It also serves as our green room during productions and it has two bathrooms which are nice.

2. What are the things you love about this space?

I don’t love our auditorium but I do appreciate it for what it is, warts and all. Our sister school has a gargantuan auditorium that feels cavernous and is often rented out causing space usage problems we don’t have to deal with at my school. I love my classroom and I enjoy providing a bright, comfortable haven for our theatre students with plenty of resources.

3. What challenges do you face working in this space?

The auditorium is a challenge since it hasn’t been designed for ideal theatre conditions.

4. How do you overcome these challenges?

We work with what we have in terms of space and often have scenic pieces that are double-sided. We have worked over the last decade to improve the lighting and sound. The limitations always lead to some creative solutions for scenery and staging.

5. Tell us about a production/performance that you did in this space that you are particularly proud of. How was the space used? What about the space worked?

I did a production of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Arabian Nights and staging in the round that was one of my favourites. I am allowed to paint the floor so a friend who is a scenic artist and I painted the floor together in an intricate, geometric Persian design that we aged. Having the audience in the round added to the communal sense of the storytelling being done and helped engage the audience. We used LED lights and gobos to add extra colour punch and texture.

6. If you had 3 magical wishes for your space, what would they be? (Let’s pretend money is no object, so wish away!)

1. Major upgrades to the stage and curtains to make them functional
2. Breaking out the sides of the stage and roof above the stage to make it a true theatre space with more backstage room
3. A scenic shop built behind the stage space with huge doors so we could do the messy scenic construction and painting elsewhere and do a professional style load in when it’s time to perform.