Theater and architecture intersect to increase student opportunities
CLEMSON – Architecture is about designing buildings and bridges; theater is about producing plays. What could the two possibly have in common? Quite a bit, as evidenced by recent collaborations between the two disciplines at Clemson University.
Henry Wilkinson is trained in architecture and has a passion for theatrical design. A 2012 graduate of Clemson’s undergraduate design program, Wilkinson is just starting out. During his junior year, he realized he liked working with his hands more than drafting and began volunteering at The Warehouse Theatre in Greenville.
Though Wilkinson had seen a number of plays growing up, “it had always been from an audience perspective,” he said.
Nevertheless, he enjoyed the close-knit and collaborative nature of the theater community, and, with a minor in philosophy, was drawn to the melding of storytelling and design. Eventually, Wilkinson asked to become the assistant to Shannon Robert, Clemson faculty member and The Warehouse Theatre’s associate artistic director and scenic designer in residence.
Paul Savas, Warehouse Theatre executive and artistic director, was impressed with Wilkinson’s work.
“He was the go-to carpenter for a long time to help our technical director, and Shannon started giving him more and more responsibility,” Savas said. “It became clear to him that he was good at it and it was something he wanted to do.”
Since then, Wilkinson has helped design sets productions of “Metamorphoses,” “August: Osage County,” “Angels in America” and, most recently, the Upstate Shakespeare Festival’s outdoor productions of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” and “Antony and Cleopatra.”
“I hope I can get a position to design and build shows,” Wilkinson said. He took a job at the Utah Shakespeare Festival this summer, and was recruited by the University of Tennessee for its Master of Fine Arts program in scenic design, where he will begin his graduate studies this fall.
Matthew Leckenbusch, the Clemson University theater department’s technical director, was in charge of building the set that Wilkinson designed for “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Leckenbusch said architecture and theater design often attempt to solve the same set of problems.
“It makes sense, especially for outdoor theater,” he said. “You’re trying to integrate the set of the play with the surrounding atmosphere. You try to make the set make sense in the context of the theatrical space and world created by the play. In much the same way, architecture tries to make a new building fit with the rest of the buildings around it.”
Leckenbusch said creating sketches, drafting designs and building small-scale models of the final product are all processes shared by scenic designers and architects. Theater simply offers architecture students another outlet for their skills and a way to bring their designs to fruition.
“There’s the opportunity for architecture students to see their work fully realized,” he said. “You can’t always build a building, but you can build a set. While a building may cost millions of dollars, a set only costs a couple thousand.”
Savas sees the architect’s body of historical knowledge as a huge asset when approaching a play’s scenic design.
“You’re doing plays from all sorts of time periods and geographical locations,” he said. “That knowledge of architectural history helps to tell that story as well as possible by evoking a specific time and place, as well as the less tangible feel and mood.”
“You use much the same skill set in building a set that you do for architecture,” said Bill Pelham, AIA, another Clemson-educated architect with a penchant for theater. “Henry is a great example of what an architecture degree can do.”
Now the CEO of his own architecture firm, Pelham was a 1977 (B.A.) and 1981 (M.A.) graduate of the architecture program. He began attending plays at Greenville Little Theatre as a child, then became a patron of The Warehouse Theatre while he was in college. He said the original Warehouse theatrical space was a nine-foot-tall loft space with a lighting system created from coffee cans and light bulbs. There, he designed his one and only show, a production of Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”
“It was a real challenge,” he said.
Pelham spent 17 years on the board of the theater, and was instrumental in moving The Warehouse to its current location in the flourishing West End of Greenville. He was at the vanguard once again when Savas and a group of Clemson theater faculty met with architecture Professor Emeritus Lynn Craig, FAIA, RIBA, regarding an intriguing proposition.
Craig organizes an expansive, “real world” project for his fourth-year architecture students each year.
“I try to put together a collaborative project between our fourth-year students and young architects and contractors in the Greenville area,” he said. “I wanted to get a project that was not too big or too small.” This type of project allows students to get out of the classroom and into the community. The reason he teams young architects and contractors with students is because “it gives them perspective on the complexities in creating a building. It makes them ask, ‘What does it cost? What materials do you use?’”
For his 2014 project, Craig called on members of the Clemson theater department, director of theater and professor Tony Penna and Dean Emeritus Chip Egan, plus Pelham and Savas.
Craig said, “I laid out my thoughts to the team, and they smiled, got little twinkles in their eyes and said, ‘Boy, have we got a project for you.’”
The idea? Have the students design a brand-new facility for The Warehouse Theatre.
Craig loved it. He met with Savas, Penna and Egan to discuss their goals and desires for a new space, then turned it over to his students. The class of 10 was divided into teams of two, each of which would be paired with two other young architects (from the American Institute of Architects) and young contractors (from the Future Construction Leaders of the Upstate) to create their designs.
The students first completed a case analysis study of theaters similar to Warehouse, which included tours of the black box theaters at the Brooks Center and the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville. After 15 weeks, the designs were finalized with input from the theater team along the way. After that, individual students honed in on specific elements of their designs for further study. ome focused on the construction materials needed; others looked at lighting schematics.
Craig said the project posed unique design challenges. What, he asks, is the process of walking an individual from the parking lot, through the lobby and to their seat while preparing them to see a performance?
“It’s the whole aspect of setting up a joyful experience in the black box theater,” he said.
Marry that with the potential of entry from all different angles in a crowded space and there are several different challenges inherent in such a project.
There also is the unusual aspect of acoustics to consider, such as the boom of fireworks. A Friday night mainstay at Fluor Field, home to the Greenville Drive baseball team, fireworks can be heard by audience members in the theater during performances, something that would need to be remedied in the new designs. This was just one special factor that the students had to take into consideration. Another was the concept of manipulating the space as needed. Every building needs to be manipulated by the user, Craig said, but a Black Box theatrical space takes this to the extreme. It is quite a challenge for any architect.
The Warehouse Theatre recently celebrated its 40th year, and the collaboration has given Savas the tools to talk to the Warehouse community about the next 40 years. Construction in downtown Greenville is making the West End district an even more attractive destination, which presents even greater opportunities for the theater.
“It would be prohibitively expensive to go to a design firm and ask for a hypothetical building that I would probably never build. This project is useful for me because it gives me something to put in front of our board members and say, ‘Think about the possibilities. Think about what we can do,’” he said. “Think of what our corner of the West End could become.’”