Dr. Will Tosh presents ‘Understanding Theatre Spaces’

By Brennan Atkins, Arts & Features Editor

Dr. Will Tosh, a postdoctoral research fellow at The Globe Theater, London, discussed architecture, British theatrical history, and Shakespeare’s impact on performance with Professor Kristen Abbott Bennett’s class, Studies in Shakespeare. 

The talk titled “Understanding Theatre Spaces” was presented via Zoom Sept. 24. 

The Zoom lecture was accompanied by a picture slideshow of different theaters around the world – the first shown was the Dwight Performing Art Center. Tosh asked the audience, “What do you see in that space that really speaks theater?”

The audience replied, suggesting the curtains, lighting, and positioning of seats are what make a theater space theatrical. “We’re really used to that as a kind of idea of what a theater looks like. We sit in the dark, we look at the space in front of us, we’re told a story, and we receive what’s going on.

“That’s not really the deal at the Globe. That’s not what happens,” he said.

Tosh explained how the architecture of the Globe Theater results in a vastly different viewing experience than watching the same play on a contemporary stage. One big difference is the Globe Theater lacks any sort of Proscenium arch – the audience doesn’t sit in front of the actors, but rather, all around them.

This means set change, costume switching, and other actors’ duties are never hidden from the audience’s view – and it forces the Globe to be part of the play itself.

Tosh described how modern theater spaces are designed in such a way that the entirety of the audience’s attention will be focused on the stage. “You don’t want to look at the ornate building and the exit sign,” he said.

“That doesn’t work in a space like the Globe, where not only the stage but also the kind of building around it, is always going to be pulled into the drama,” Tosh said. 

Shakespeare would write his plays with the Globe’s space in mind. Tosh gave the audience an example in the beginning pages of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus,” in which a stage direction calls for actors to walk in from two separate doors facing the same direction – similar to how the Globe’s doors are constructed.

Tosh said, “Shakespeare, as a playwright, is thinking about the architecture, the building design of his theater to structure the drama of this opening scene. It’s just there in his DNA when he thinks about theatricality and performance.”

References to the Globe aren’t just found in stage direction but can be found in the poetry itself, Tosh said. The Globe theater’s ceiling is heavily decorated with zodiac signs representing the sky – the Shakespeare company dubbed the ceiling “The Heavens.” 

Tosh recited a line from the second act of “Titus Andronicus” after explaining “The Heavens,” and how the combination of these two elements creates a unique theatrical experience.

“Now climbeth Tamora Olympus’ top / Safe out of fortune’s shot; and sits aloft / Secure of thunder’s crack or lightning flash / Advanced above pale envy’s threatening reach / As when the golden sun salutes the morn / And, having gilt the ocean with his beams / Gallops the zodiac in his glistering coach / And overlooks the highest-peering hills,” recited Tosh. 

Tosh also went through the history of early modern theaters, and how Shakespeare was among one of the first playwrights and dramatists who wrote for established, commercial theaters in England.

 “When Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, theaters as structures that you visited, didn’t exist,” he said. Tosh explained theaters were seen in courts, and sometimes in school, but in the mid-1550s, permanent theater spaces didn’t exist. 

This brought about another change in theatrical history – the transition from actors having to tour to perform, to performing at the same place every show. While this made being a playwright a potential career, it also brought about new challenges for the theater industries. Touring companies would put on the same show in different locations – as the crowd was always different, but when you stay in the same place, you need new material as well.