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Ascending a Staircase: the magic of the interior
Rina Arya in conversation with artist Allie Carr
2 February 2022
Ascending a Staircase is a series of thirteen photographs of the interiors of theatres, predominantly in the North of England, by the artist Allie Carr. 1 Taken in 2019, their aim was to probe the architectural interiors of theatres and their historical contexts through photographic means, to interrogate the kind of visibility that the theatrical stage offered.
Thinking about these representations a couple of years later during the height of Covid-19 generates different feelings. What was an enquiry into the ‘quiet’ life of theatre spaces before the performance starts became eerie; a visual reflection of the grim reality of the world under lockdown. March 2020 saw the first of three national lockdowns in the UK that imposed the closure of non-essential industries. Up and down the country theatres closed their doors indefinitely, leaving companies, arts organisations, actors and other personnel at risk of financial strife. In pre-Covid times the photographs could be savoured at leisure; an empty auditorium unimpeded by the distraction and disruption of people. The usual bustle of theatregoers jostling their way into their seats, crammed in, row by row, masks the formal beauty of an undulating sea of plush velvet seats. The emptiness now signifies something different. It is haunting and tells of the devastating impact that Covid has had on the industry; the UK’s arts and entertainment sector being one of the areas most affected. Although recovery has now begun, in the summer of 2021, and restrictions eased, the damage is far-reaching. The pandemic also exposed the inequalities between Northern England and the rest of the country. Austerity put the region in a more vulnerable position from a health, wellbeing and economic perspective, prompting the need to level up the country by providing greater support to local authorities in the area. The representation of theatres from the North, as a series in its own right, takes on a renewed poignancy in this context.2
The choice of comparatively less well-known and regional venues, in Northern cities and their environs, as a series in its own right, is welcome. Many of these industrial towns, not known for their creative industries, would go unrecognised if it were not for these creative hubs. I asked Allie to talk about her selection of venues and their geographic locations:
It felt important that I was capturing a space that serves a community, rather than picking theatres and venues that have a lot of prestige. When it becomes about status then it becomes about the value of the place and what that can confer on an event or production. The crucial thing I think is that they are regional. But I also wanted to factor in class, in the sense of working-class towns and cities. I want to keep documenting as many Northern theatres as I can and that may mean I question where the North begins.
In terms of getting access, I reached out to many places. Some responded and these were the ones I was able to get into dialogue with and arrange a date. So, I did a lot of research online to find the venues and facilitate discussion. There are other places too I’d like to shoot. So, some of this is luck rather than design. I wasn’t interested in contemporary buildings.
These venues, dating from 1863 to 1934, were built during an active period of theatre building but often started off life as something other than a theatre. They are now multipurpose. The Library Theatre, Sheffield, was originally designed as a lecture hall when the Central Library was built; City Varieties, Leeds was a music hall; Victoria Theatre, Halifax, was purchased by Halifax Borough Council in 1960 and was later converted into a theatre; Pomegranate, Chesterfield used to be a circus, and Stockport Plaza was a bingo hall for many years before being restored as a cinema and theatre. The restoration projects involved the upkeep of the building, which also often entailed the transformation of use. The Foundation of the Theatres Trust in 1976, which was when many theatres were given Grade II listed status, ceased the practice of multipurpose use. One of the most significant repair projects has been on Joe Longthorne Theatre (formerly North Pier Pavilion), Blackpool, which is one of a few operating pier theatres in England. After incurring damage by strong winds in December 2013, it reopened a year later but remains at risk due to the condition of the pier. Its precarious fate is poignantly reflected in the interior; in the repeated curve-like waves in the ceilings that overwhelm the stage.
The interiors of each venue are as varied as their histories. The architectural styles of the interiors include Victorian and Art Deco. The ostentatious and sumptuous Victorian design differs from the strong geometric forms and clean lines of Art Deco.
Several of the theatres contain a proscenium arch, a distinctively Victorian trend used to heighten the sense of grandeur. The tiered seating captures the drama and dynamism of the auditorium. One of the most fascinating aspects is the way in which digital technology, such as audio-visual equipment and CCTV cameras, are unobtrusively incorporated into the pre-existing architectural styles. It is a reminder of what Michael Coveney described as a ‘palimpsest of past occupation’.3 I asked Allie about her choice of mainly pre-war theatres; was this combination of the old and the new of particular interest to her?
I’m really interested in the social, cultural and political shifts in modernity so I’m looking for venues that hold that in some way. Stephen Gundle writes about glamour; that it’s something that comes about with industrialised processes – it’s the veneer or lacquer on the surface that makes something look expensive. It is not real gold or real prestige.4 Before glamour there is the lavish adornments of royalty. I’m not interested in any of that, so for this series I didn’t want to photograph venues that are too old—I think that 1863 is the earliest of the theatres I’ve included, because I don’t want it to have a visual vocabulary that predates glamour. I’m really interested in the particularity of theatre design, the way it doesn’t work like other forms of public space.
Within the context of theatre studies, images of the interior of theatres operate in a number of different ways, for instance to convey information as archives of the past or as photographic records of performances/productions. Allie constructs her photographs as artworks and animates them through their aestheticism in a balance of composition, focal point and framing. I asked Allie to develop these notions.
I had previously made theatre photographs and I was photographing only the auditoria, not the stages, and my approach was to observe, to create documents. With this series, I wanted to be quite assertive in putting forward constructed images with a position.
When I get access, I am left in the space by myself for a period of time, or have unlimited time, or someone comes in with me and I have a narrow window, or have to work out the image while I’m being watched. I find that no matter what the set-up is, the best thing for me to do is walk in the theatre. I walk around the outside of all the seats in the stalls, go upstairs if there is a balcony. I shoot with a 50mm lens which means its range is much like the human eye. This means I compose by looking. I shoot at f22 which usually means my exposures are a minute long. I also have to shoot for the lights; a much quicker exposure is required so they don’t blow out. I then combine the images. When I make exposures that are a minute long, my camera has to do a lot of processing and I can’t really take many different photos at all; so it’s a bit like using film in that I have to be judicious about what I shoot. Having such long exposures is what gives the images a sense of detailed focus across the whole image – and it’s that that makes the images, I think.
The level of detail in Allie’s photographs is tremendous and she builds up a vivid picture of the multisensory qualities of the environment. The viewer gets a sense of the texture of the seats and drapes to the evocative lighting and other intricacies of the interior. The images convey a sense of liveness; it feels as if the performance is about to begin, with the stage lights on, and that sense of anticipation that one gets before the curtain opens. The spatial enveloping created through the structural devices such as stairs and open doors gives a real sense of expanse and depth, which is heightened with the juxtaposition of opposite or complementary colours and this creates a sense of immersion. We are reminded of the multidimensional aspects of theatrical encounters; the visual, spatial, technological and other components.5 Allie commented on how she wanted to create this sense of expanse:
I’m trying to find the place or few places in the theatre that I can think can tell the best story of that venue. I look for access on to the stage – steps, doors, sometimes I have to prop doors open with impromptu wedges. I want to create an image that has a sense of the stage and the auditorium – so the space for the workers and the audience. Ideally, I want the image to be a balance of both those spaces as well as some sense of the conduits between them.
One of the most striking features of these photographs is the implied viewer; we experience the auditorium as an audience member would, positioned as they are in different seats but all stage facing. At some vantage points we are facing the stage frontally whilst in others the view is more oblique and we see instead exit doors, clocks, signs, rope barriers, cameras, bins, fire extinguishers. These objects are reminders of the division between the stage, where fiction reigns, and the real world outside of that. The presence of the stage and the auditorium including seating, is a reminder of the ‘material conditions’ that take into account the triadic relationship between the conditions of production and reception and the performance that intersect in the making of meaning.6
Picking up on the significance of the objects – they also operate in another way – draws attention to the aesthetic aspects of the object rather than merely the functional. In conventional use these objects serve mere functional purposes. They are strangely conspicuous in virtue of their role in the performance and yet invisible at the same time. Allie discussed her interest in incidental objects.
Yes, I also look at the signs on the walls. Sometimes there are figures or filigree in the auditorium space. But also, there is usually contemporary didactic signage, which I guess you’re supposed to perceive but not really see. I like that when you make a detailed photograph, all these signs become equal and obvious. The signage is as visible as the dust trails. The lights are as bright as padded chairs. Everything is a spectacle across the image, everything is clear and in focus. In that way, I’ve made an image without hierarchy, everything is equal, and I hope that is the challenge too, or the aspect of the image that troubles.
In her photographs incidental objects are brought into the frame, into prominence and become the focal point. Take, for instance, the photo of the Lyceum. Here the composition is divided between the ornate stage screen and the architectural façade. The proscenium arch came from the Victorian idea of wanting to view a production through a highly decorative picture frame. The gilded frame surrounds an archetypally Victorian painted screen with cherubs and luxurious drapery. In spite of this sumptuous visual display, the viewer’s gaze is diverted elsewhere away from the arch to a blue ladder recessed in the background of the architectural façade.
Similarly, in the image of the Grand Theatre, Blackpool, the eye luxuriates in the gilded plasterwork and moulded sculptural decoration. But attention shifts to a security exit with its stripped back stark acid lighting revealing a bare staircase with a fire extinguisher at its base. The eye once again is drawn to the prosaic in the image of Victoria Theatre. The lure of the mystical purple glow on stage loses out to the banal staircase in ordinary lighting to the side of the stage.
Allie and I explored further how the shift from the grand to the stark was more pronounced in the Victorian theatres featured in her photographs because of the performative and ceremonial elements, a view promulgated by Kate Newey, who discusses the notion of theatricality within a Victorian context, claiming that ‘it is the quality that makes theatre theatrical’.7
The division between the two realms of the theatre, the sacred magic of the performance in contrast with the everyday workings of the behind the scenes is explored to dramatic effect in the photograph of the Darlington Hippodrome. The fireside glow enveloping the auditorium with its soft plush drapery contrasts with the slate grey stage in its harsh linearity. This could serve as a metaphor for the artifice of theatre that keeps the realities at bay. I asked Allie what she made of this reading in general terms.
I really wanted to construct images that pointed to class, gender and systems of oppression. Theatres often accommodate people with money and without money differently and the stage is for workers. The stairs onto the stage is the portal—and it is usually quite provisional, plain, dull. So there are these lines of division all across the images, lines to be breached. And I hope, therefore, to give a sense of the bravery and gumption to all those people who have breached the stage, crossed a line, used the stage as an opportunity for self-definition.
The closure of theatres early in 2020 halted the continuation of performances within theatre venues but it also crucially showed that this did not stymie the need for creative art forms. To meet the needs of the general public individuals and groups within the theatre developed ways to bring performances to the general public in a variety of different ways not merely for financial gain but in order to boost morale.8Funding was disseminated to a number of projects through UKRI’s rapid response fund. Cultural organisations worked with businesses to create immersive experiences and to make work available online. The Digital Theatre Transformation project produced a bespoke toolkit to enable theatres to make the transition online.9 Whilst the transference of the physical to the online was undeniably one of the most significant activities carried out during lockdown, there are numerous other practices, some more entrepreneurial in spirit, that conveyed new ways of challenging definitions of performance, particularly ‘live performance’. These novel ways conveyed the integral relationship in the exchange/connection between actor and audience rather than in the physical venue per se. These reconceptualisations raise important methodological questions about the practice of theatre, which Rachel Hann discusses in her incisive study on scenography (2018). Citing from the theatre director Peter Brook’s essay ‘The Deadly Stage’ (1968), she explains how scenography can be conceived as a spatial relation crafted through intervention. Theatre conceived of as ‘Red curtains, spotlights, blank verse, laughter, darkness’ is limiting.10 Turning it on its head, as Brook does, in his revision of what constitutes theatre: ‘I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged’. The latter formulation has been made manifest during Covid in the initiatives undertaken by practitioners to entertain and enrich the lives of many. Going forward, in the reopening of theatres, directors and others could afford to learn from these expanded practices, and indeed should not confine theatre to a static understanding. It is true that the ambience of theatre spaces is special, as evoked par excellence in Ascending a Staircase. There is something sumptuously nostalgic about sitting in plush velvet seats, absorbing the splendour of architectural features from a bygone era, waiting for the lights to dim and the shared experience of the performance to begin but that being said, theatre broadly conceived in the experimental forms experienced in recent months have instantiated the contemporary notion of scenography.11
Rina Arya joined the University of Huddersfield in 2018 as Professor of Visual Culture and Theory. Professor Arya received an MA in Theology from the University of Leeds and a PhD from the University of Glasgow. Her research interests include post-war British art; abjection and disgust; theology and visual art; the sociology of the sacred; and visual religious studies. Her main research interest is in the role of the sacred in the arts and culture, especially in contemporary secular culture. Her PhD focused on the expression and experience of the sacred in “Death of God” culture. Since then she has written extensively on the art of Francis Bacon. This developed her interest in abjection and the body, the subject of her 2014 monograph. She is continuing her interest in the relationship between the visual and culture in her current book project on the cultural appropriation of Hindu symbols.
Alison J. Carr gained her MFA from California Institute of the Arts and Sheffield Hallam University for her PhD. Alison was awarded an Arts Council England ‘Grants for the Arts’ funding in 2017 which enabled her to make bold new work in her practice: photographing theatre interiors, making a short film about a former 1930s Bluebell chorus girl and creating solo longer length performances. She continued making this work as part of Site / Freelands Platform in 2018-2020, experimenting further to make collages, watercolours and video of appropriated material. She is continuing her momentum with support from Developing Your Creative Practice in 2021.
- Out of the cities represented, namely Blackpool, Darlington, Halifax, Leeds, Pendle, Penistone, Sheffield and Stockport, Chesterfield is the only one according to official government regions that is situated in the East Midlands and not the North. ↩
- The Northern Health Science Alliance, NIHR Applied Research Collaborations, NIHR School of Public Health, 2020. Research Report, Covid-19 and the Northern Powerhouse: Tackling Health Inequalities for UK Health and Productivity. ↩
- Michael Coveney, London Theatres, London: Frances Lincoln, 2017. ↩
See Stephen Gundle, Glamour: A History, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. ↩
- Joslin McKinney and Scott Palmer (ed.), Scenography Expanded: An Introduction to Contemporary Performance Design. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017. ↩
- Ric Knowles, Reading the Material Theatre, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 1-3. ↩
- Kate Newey, ‘Victorian Theatricality’ in Martin Hewitt (ed.) The Victorian World, London: Routledge, 2012, pp. 569, 584. ↩
- One such initiative was Homemakers, commissioned by Home, an arts venue located in central Manchester. Homemakers was ‘a series of new commissions inviting artists to create new works at home, for an audience who are also at home’. https://homemcr.org/event/homemakers/. ↩
- https://www.creationtheatre.co.uk/about/digital-theatre-transformation-2/ ↩
- Rachel Hann, Beyond Scenography, London: Routledge, 2018, pp. 7-8. ↩
- Joslin McKinney and Scott Palmer (ed.), Scenography Expanded: An Introduction to Contemporary Performance Design. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017. ↩