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Charcoalblue Charcoalblue helped to collaborate on the National Theatre’s striking temporary space The Shed

Evolving technology means that the spaces which theatre and performance inhabits have to be up to date too. Susan Elkin talks to theatre consultancy Charcoalblue, who are responsible for shaping many of the contemporary performing arts spaces in the UK


hen we succeed, nobody knows we’ve ever been there. Bit like technical theatre really ...’ says Paul Crosbie, senior consultant at Charcoalblue – an innovative theatre consultancy founded in 2004 by Andy Hayles, Jon Stevens and Gavin Green and now working internationally with over 30 associates. The company, one of only a few of its type in the UK, collaborates with architects and theatre companies to help create better buildings and spaces for performance. The staff comprises those who have worked for many years in and on many theatres of different types in a wide range of capacities, mostly technical.

between architect and technical specifier, engineer and client. ‘We are grounded in theatre practice and performance, and are still driven by a passion for all types of performing arts projects, big or small, new build or refurbishment,’ says Katy Winter on behalf of the company, explaining

Philip Vile

Better buildings

that Charcoalblue provides detailed design guidance on all aspects of theatre, performance and arts projects. ‘We will tackle anything from a concert hall to a community centre, a gallery to a multimedia suite,’ Winter adds. And that inevitably includes many of the school and college theatres which have been created in recent years, as well as work for world-famous companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre and Glyndebourne Festival Opera, and cutting-edge outfits such as Siobhan Davies Dance and Graeae Theatre Company – Charcoalblue will take on any sort of performing arts project.

Understanding what works A good theatre consultancy is not only expert, but also independent. ‘We have no

Tackling anything So what exactly does a theatre consultancy do? Its role is to bring together all the people and organisations involved in creating a new building and to make sure work at all levels proceeds smoothly. It acts as a medium



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Oscar Stringer

We are grounded in theatre practice and performance, and are still driven by a passion for all types of performing arts projects

An system of overhead bridges were constructed for the Unicorn Theatre


14/08/2013 16:11:51


We strive to envisage how the teachers and students will use the building both now and in the future

relationships or tie-ins with manufacturers and are not obliged to buy any particular equipment’. What you get, according to Gavin Owen, senior consultant at Charcoalblue, is the services of ‘an experienced, independent and well-informed individual who understands theatre in all its guises, shape and sizes’. He adds firmly: ‘We understand what works and what doesn’t.’ For example, The Leys in Cambridge is an independent school with an active and successful music and drama department. The school’s previous theatre, built in 1967, was no longer fit for purpose. The Great Hall project, with Charcoalblue involvement, provided the school with a new home for drama. The new 320-seat Great Hall theatre incorporates high-spec backstage facilities, technical infrastructure including lighting and sound equipment, a control room, a workshop, storage areas and a green room. These will enable The Leys drama department and technical staff to operate a fully functional ‘teaching theatre’, with students involved in every aspect of productions. To increase flexibility of use, the lower-seating tier of the theatre is retractable, creating a school hall which can comfortably seat 600 for a full school assembly. A first floor drama studio providing flexible rehearsal space and an intimate theatre, which can be used for small productions and group work, has also been created, as well as a dance studio and space for the drama department providing three spacious classrooms and an office.

Charcoalblue projects

Birmingham REP – To celebrate its centenary, Birmingham REP is undergoing redevelopment Bristol Old Vic – The renovations were completed in autumn 2012 to a cost of over £19m Chichester Festival Theatre – The theatre’s technical system design is being overhauled by Charcoalblue as part of the building’s update National Theatre – Charcoalblue helped to construct the National Theatre’s temporary performance space The Shed while work is underway to refurbish the Cottesloe Theatre, also with help from the consultancy firm Curve Theatre, Leicester – Finished in 2008, the performing arts complex cost £61m to complete

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Results: Charcoalblue’s work at The Leys School, Cambridge

Multipurpose spaces Charcoalblue’s Gavin Owen provided theatre design and planning services to The Leys School as well as the detailed design of the theatre’s technical systems. The company also worked on – among many other projects in education establishments – the refurbished theatre at Repton School and the new facility at St Edward’s in Oxford. Managing partner Andy Hayles points out that school auditoria often have to accommodate such activities as assemblies, parents’ evenings and exams, as well as meeting the needs of the drama and music departments. ‘We look and listen very carefully to what the client wants,’ he says. ‘We strive to envisage how the teachers and students will use the building both now and in the future – and then the specification of the theatre systems is more than appropriate.’

LAMDA – The drama school’s move to a new Hammersmith base is expected to be complete by spring 2014 Liverpool Everyman – Work is currently underway to add new facilities to the theatre, including an education studio Lyric Hammersmith – The Lyric is adding brand new spaces such as a film and TV studio, as well as enhancing its current facilities Unicorn Theatre – The children’s theatre was redeveloped with help from Charcoalblue in 2005 Southbank Centre – The somewhat controversial building work on the Southbank Centre is being assisted by Charcoalblue, who plan to integrate new theatre systems into all of the centre’s spaces.

Crucially too, Charcoalblue argues passionately that second best is not good enough for schools. ‘Our approach to school projects is to give them the highest specification in response to their needs because the standard should be no less than a professional space with the same budget,’ says Owens.

Expanding Charcoalblue is quite a success story. Now the theatre consultants of choice for many of the country’s leading architects and theatre companies, it has won awards, ecstatic reviews from the theatrical and architectural press and, most importantly, praise from its theatres’ performers, technicians and audiences. All of which has led to an increasing demand for the company’s services beyond the UK, and in 2012 it opened a parallel studio in New York. And as at The Leys School, where it was partial, the company’s involvement can work at different levels: at one end of the spectrum it might be simply an initial feasibility study and assessment of user needs and wider community aspirations; or it could be the detailed design of a theatre auditorium or the technical fitting out of a stage-house. Where appropriate, Charcoalblue will design specialist systems and equipment, tailoring them to requirements, including bespoke seating and furniture design, stage engineering, stage lighting and audiovisual systems. So if you are thinking of improving or creating a theatre space, a consultancy really has to be your first port of call – although as Crosbie says, if the work is done well, the public will be blissfully unaware of it.


For more information about the organisation and their projects, visit


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14/08/2013 16:12:28

Charcoalblue - Better Buildings / Teaching Drama  

Evolving technology means that the spaces which theatre and performance inhabits have to be up to date too. Susan Elkin talks to theatre con...

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