A 20 metre-tall cube constructed like a Lego set could be the solution for a live entertainment sector that has been mothballed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Stufish Entertainment Architects has teamed up with live music and theatre producers to launch the Vertical Theatre Company, which aims to revive the struggling live events sector via temporary modular open-air venues that can be built to comply with social distancing restrictions.
Stufish, the rock and roll architectural practice that has designed extravagant live shows including the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, The Han Show and huge tours for U2 and The Rolling Stones, believes that the creative sector needs a shot in the arm after numerous false starts during the pandemic.
The Vertical Theatre concept could provide a solution, according to Ric Lipson, a partner at the company. It could be used to entertain between 1,200 and 2,400 people at a time, depending on the restrictions in place. “The pandemic has forced a fundamental rethink of the design,” he says.
The open structure allows for air ventilation while also providing cover for patrons. It differs from a traditional theatre in that it has up to eight entry points, which reduces the bottleneck of funnelling all patrons through a single door and avoids the crowding issue arising from everyone using the same toilets, bars and merchandising counters.
The modular design means that seats can be clustered into balconies that seat four, six or 12 people. The designers believe that by stacking those balconies vertically, without a large stalls section, it also has benefits for performers.
Robert Delamere, the theatre, opera and television director and former Amnesty International creative director, is a co-founder of the Vertical Theatre. He says that one of the problems for theatres during the pandemic has been the need to space out the audience, which gives the sense of a poorly attended show — a problem too if the performance is being filmed and broadcast online, as it lacks energy.
“There have been wonderful attempts to bring theatres back by taking away the seats,” he says. “But we need to get people to feel like there aren’t huge holes between them and the stage. We need to get that excitement back.”
The vertical event space, which will be ready to deploy over the coming months, takes two weeks to construct and can be quickly moved to different locations as part of a touring show. The founders also expect it to be used by local councils for temporary event spaces, or by developers looking to rejuvenate a site. The concept could be applied to sporting events that work in the round — such as squash games or boxing matches — as well as for product launches and fashion shows. Stufish believes that, as restrictions ease, it could even be used for club nights.
Reduced audiences and the threat of last-minute cancellations due to new lockdown measures have meant that the sector faces tough questions about its economic viability. There have been attempts to move theatre to an outdoor setting — including the Arcola theatre in east London — but most have been at a small scale.
The concept of the Vertical Theatre thus represents a “beacon of hope”, Delamere says — but he acknowledges that many promoters are reluctant to plan too far into the future with the uncertainty around when restrictions will ease.
Stufish says that the construction of the temporary theatre, which would include power and toilet facilities, is more expensive on a short-term basis than using a traditional theatre or basic open-air set up. But it might be needed to get people in the creative sectors working again while instilling confidence in the audience. “It is more expensive than a tent with bleachers. But that is a tent with bleachers,” says Lipson.
The founders of the Vertical Theatre do not see it as a threat to traditional venues but do expect that more modular and flexible designs will become more common in the post-pandemic world.
“It is the type of thinking about structure that will become the way over the next 10 to 20 years,” Lipson says. “People don’t know what they want from a building in 10 years any more. The world is changing.”