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City Lights Theatre Building Community through Theatre

Sean McFeely

Studio Stannard



Once seen as temples of theatre, standard theaters severely limit the medium in an era of film and cinema. Actors must adapt as movies dominate the world, just as painters developed new ways for canvas to express emotion after the invention of photography. While film struggles to move beyond the picture plane, theatre excels as a spatial medium as actors can walk among, sit with and converse with audience members. Productions can also relate to each individual unique location. Theaters must change to support and capitalize on these elements. After centuries of increasingly elaborate sets, theatre must return to the past. With limited resources, Greek, Roman and English directors built sets with multiple levels and walls with doors. Actors transformed 2 or 3 feet of elevation change into a complete building story or two, and neighboring doors into castles miles apart. In effect, actors simply need levels and walls to create spaces for them to inhabit and transform into imaginary worlds. These elements can be relabeled as platforms and screens in the context of a permanent venue as these lighter and mobile constructs offer greater flexibility for future productions. Increased flexibility even aids rapid transformations during performances as platforms raise and lower on demand and screens move or open as entrances for actors. Greek, Roman and English actors adapted performances for each locality they visited before

Population 1777 64

Population 1850 2,073

Population 1920 39,642

Population 1950 95,280

Population 1980 629,442

Population 2010 945,942

permanent venues reappeared in Elizabethan England. Other than Ancient Greek amphitheaters, performance venues rarely matched. Actors reworked their staging depending on the amenities and unique circumstances provided. Overturning the professions dependence on generic cookie-cutter stages strengthens the connection with audience members as architects and directors incorporate neighboring buildings, local culture and individual audience members into productions. Doing so also makes each performance a unique experience not seen in other cities. Venues that connect with their community can even help heal many of the soulless cities in America that developed through suburban sprawl. American cities such as San Jose, California transformed during the baby boom and demographic migrations and population expansion encouraged mass tracts of cookie cutter houses and boring office buildings. As a medium of art, theatre can help identify and illuminate the special qualities and elements of a locality. While film presents and encourages a single universal culture, theatre should celebrate the differences that make every community interesting.

Precedents Ancient Greek Theater Various Cities, Aegean Sea Ancient Greeks 700-100 BC Ancient Greek cities include an amphitheater carved into a hillside. A single set piece or the natural landscape serve as a backdrop. Multiple doors and balconies make the stage adaptable to different productions and scenes. Using a single set, minimizes transition times between productions.

The Globe London, England Lord Chamberlain’s Men 1599 The Globe strives to do the most with the least. A simple thrust stage provides a variety of spatial situations for the actors to act upon and the audience to complete with their imagination. The tongue thrusts the action into the crowd transforming the performance into a spatial experience. All seats are not equal but they each offer a different experience.

Wyly Theater Dallas Texas REX 2009 Wyly Theater combines the black box and traditional theater typologies. The theater changes between theatre-in-the-round and horseshoe arrangements through a system of adjustable floor platforms and removable seating. Switching the stage and audience creates a reverse theatre-in-the-round set up or any other imaginable arrangement.

Walt Disney Modular Theater Valencia, CA Thorton Ladd 1993 Based on Antontin Artaud’s ideal theater, the Walt Disney Modular Theater creates an infinitely flexible theater via modularity. Hydraulic pistons raise and lower 384 4x4 platforms comprising the stage. Modular screens divide and rearrange space as needed between or during performances. Lights modify sets to create different atmospheres.


The selected site offers connection to multiple transportation options. Locating near the city center (Circle of Palms Plaza) puts the project within 5 minutes walking distance from multiple parking options. People wanting to go car-free can get off the Light Rail and multiple bus routes less than a block away. Alternately, people can combine a trip to the theatre with stops at nearby parks, shopping alleys or the library. Situated among older buildings, the project site (in green) connects the old with the new. Specifically, an outdoor theater can showcase St. Joseph’s Basilica and the historic Post Office as a potential backdrop. Multiple food establishments provide an opportunity for the project to function as a daytime plaza where people can meet, sit and enjoy to-go offerings. Parking

Light Rail Bus Routes

Locals Travelers

Food Entertainment

Pre-50s Buildings

Movie Amateur Professional

Historic Post Office

Knight Ridder Office Tower and Fairmont Hotel

First Street

St. Joseph’s Basilica

First Street East

First Street West


Final Design

Final Design Production Staging Directors that wish to stage plays in more traditional seating arrangements can orient their productions based upon a desired backdrop. Platforms rise to form terraced seating or remain on the ground for level seating. Orienting the theater diagonally southwest places St. Joseph’s Cathedral in the background for productions seeking a cityscape, utilizing a church or Christian themes, or taking place in the past. The raised upper stage serves as the primary stage with the restaurant, storage building, and/or raised platforms forming a thrust stage serving as auxiliary stages. Orienting to the south provides a more contemporary setting with the restaurant as the background. Actors perform on two levels in addition to any intermediary levels provided the upper stage or by raised platforms in the plaza. Audience members in the second story cafe seating area experience the production from backstage. Orienting to the north places the blank CMU wall behind the stage for more experimental productions. Platforms rise to define a stage if desired. Transformable screens lined along the wall create a second level and or backdrop if needed.

Stage Audience

Potential Productions Using multiple small stages that rise throughout the plaza, the Little Prince literally travels planet to planet (stage to stage) during the play. Audience members fill the empty void of space between the planets and experience the performance as people from the planet nearest to their seat.

Staging The Laramie Project on the upper stage reflects the intimacy of a small town and magnifies the intense media firestorm expressed in the play. Actors travel throughout the stage to interview the citizens of Laramie. Actors even sit among the audience for the trial of Aaron Mckinney and his guilty verdict.

During Henry V, audience members acquire the nationality of the castle nearest to them (restaurant or storage) thereby splitting the audience half French and half English. English and French soldiers fight in the center of the plaza. Henry V and Catherine Valois conclude the play marrying before St. Joseph’s Basilica.

Final Design Tranformable Screens

eet 5F

Transformable Screens


As permanent fixtures of the theater, the screens require a great degree of flexibility. Composed as a wall of slats, the screens filter natural light into the restaurant during the day. On warm days or during productions, the screens slide out of the way and stow away in the storage building.

15 Feet

Constructing the slats out of two different materials (steel and wood) allows for two different facades when the slats are closed. The steel also strengthens the slats thereby allowing actors to climb them during productions. A screen also pivots from bottom and top, allowing either the bottom or top to rotate out 9 feet to change the buildings facade. Rotated outwards, these screens create a second level when lined up against the parking garage during performances.

31.5 ยบ Rotation







1:20 Model

Final Design 1:4 Section Model

City Lights Theatre Summary  

Building community through theatre